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The Decemberists - The Tain CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.77 | 24 ratings

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The Whistler
Prog Reviewer
4 stars (The Tain IV.V)

I've been struggling to write an intro to this review of The Tain. I want to really hammer home the concept that this is the album that saved modern rock 'n roll for me. Without The Tain, I wouldn't have taken Radiohead seriously, tried out Muse, realized that there was more to modern prog than a bunch of heavy metal rejects or purposeful weirdos. And, the punch line is, I bought it because it was like three bucks! It's just an EP! But it's more than a mere EP's solid gold. This is where The Decemebrists, long since having dabbled in artistic pomp, come of age. This is music like no one has made since 1975. This is...The Tain.

The Tain opens with the slow, slinky, sexy acoustic riffage of...uh...well, "The Tain Part I." What do you want? It's Sabbathy, they say, and I can see why. The riff itself, which slides up and down the guitar neck at will, and is augmented at the instrumental breaks by guitar, bass, blocky organ and snappy drumming. The result would be enough to scare any number of small dogs. This quickly breaks into "Tain Part II," which is, I guess, kind of Deep Purpley. Or maybe it's more Sabbathy. The point is, the riff is much simpler and faster, but it allows the band to work more effectively around it, stretching out within the less confining structure.

Sadly, it's over before you can say jackknife (an odd difficulty; for something that's almost twenty minutes long, certain sections of The Tain seem awfully short). Still, "Part III" doesn't disappoint. A very pretty, pastoral number, with a very lilting refrain and a cello spot in the middle that approaches bleeding gorgeousness, the center spot of The Tain creates a pleasant counterpoint to the hamfistedly heavy first sections of the record (it might actually be my favorite part).

It's only with "The Tain Part IV" that a single sections overstays its welcome a tad. And, hey, even if this one part is a TAD, just a tad, overlong, it's still based on a catchy, pleasant folk melody, and features lovely, cold singing by...some chick who isn't Colin Meloy! So you can't really call it a boring droner. Not that you'd want to, it's a satisfying section that fits right in with the rest of the song (and dig those goofy instrumental breaks!).

What I find most amazing is that "Part V" actually manages to cap the whole thing off in a deserving way. It's a pure rush, jamming the speed and looseness of the second part, but managing to retain the noble qualities and riff of the first part, eventually bleeding into a towering, cathartic choral, with twenty Colins layered on top of each other. Or maybe it's like three Colins, but you get my point. The very end is also fantastic: each instrument getting a take the opening riff, before dissolving into just Colin and the acoustic. Now why does that ending sound familiar? OH YEAH. It's how Thick as a Brick ends...

And, to be perfectly honest, the twenty minutes of The Tain play like the long lost third side of Tull's infamous record. And I mean that?when I say that no one has made an album (excuse me, EP) like this since 1975, I wasn't kidding. This is classic prog quality. It can't quite crack the five star point for me since there aren't any kickass solos, and there's not a lot of emotional depth to the thing...I mean, dude, it's a twenty minute song about stealing cows. What do you want?

But it's got pretty much everything else in favor for it. The flow is magnificent; each section bleeds brilliantly into the next, to the point that it wasn't until "Part IV" that I even realized that they probably spliced recordings together, rather than just do a single long take in the studio. Each section is also brilliantly written and memorable, and even if there aren't too many soul shattering solos, not an instrument is out of place across the entire recording. Not much emotional depth perhaps, but at the right moments, very atmospheric.

And a word about the story. Some of my colleagues seem a bit disappointed that The Decemberists have chosen to do a more abstract telling of this Irish founding myth than The Horslips' seminal version. I ask, why? I find this "less faithful" version of the story an interesting counterpoint to the 1973 album. Some things to notice include the fact that the battle--perhaps the entire point of The Tain--is absolutely bypassed, snuck cautiously between Parts "II" and "III." Also, does anyone else get the feeling that "Part IV" is told from the perspective of a storyteller relating the tale, giving the entire album an existentialist, perhaps metaphysical feel? Hmm...

The only real fault you can drag against the album is that it's a little too short; there's not a lot of wiggle room for expansion within the five-plus-themes/18-and-a-half minutes of the EP (oh, by the way, when I say the only real fault of an album is that it should be LONGER...that's a good sign).

If Radiohead snobbily experimented their way into prog, and The Mars Volta druggedly jammed their way in, then the Decemberists are more like I and you. They pretty much just picked up their instruments, steadied themselves, and clubbed their way into prog rock, whether it liked it or not. The result is The Tain. As I said, the band had experimented with longer song formats and multi part suits before, but this humble EP sounds like nothing the band put out before. It was a turning point, paving the way for more complex, or at least better thought out, things to come. But it's more than a historical hinge; The Tain has a quiet charm that never quite fades away, and for that reason, it shall always hold a special place in my heart. It is a pity that this EP seems to sneak by without making much of a name for itself; you'd be doing yourself a tremendous disservice if you let this one get away.

The Whistler | 4/5 |


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