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The Decemberists - Castaways And Cutouts CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.58 | 63 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars With this, their first full-length album, THE DECEMBERISTS move closer to the rich territory they mine in later work. 'Castaways and Cutouts' is a perfect title for this collection of sorrowful vignettes of the less fortunate, beginning with the girl whose "mother birthed me far too soon/born at nine and dead at noon" (Leslie Ann Levine) and moving to cynics tired of life: "And we are vagabonds/we travel without seatbelts on/we live this close to death" (Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect). Within moments of playing this album for the first time the careful listener realises they are in the presence of something more insightful, more beautiful than the average rock offering. This is mature, this is sharp, this is literary, this has meaning.

What it is not is prog rock. Not yet. At this point THE DECEMBERISTS were concerned with fusing alt-rock with country and folk sensibilities. There are elements of interest for the prog listener, foremost among them the restrained but glorious application of the hammond organ by JENNY CONLEE. The album offers upbeat pop numbers such as 'July, July!' and immediately counterpoints with the folky, darkly humorous 'A Cautionary Tale', ostensibly about how your mother spends her nights in order to keep you in collard greens. 'Odalisque', the stand-out track, is even darker and has none of the humour, but gives us a glimpse of the band's future direction, offering musical and lyrical complexity, often with dysfunctional sexuality as the focus. MELOY is a superb storyteller, albeit of the bleakest elements of the human psyche.

A word about COLIN MELOY, the creative impetus of this extraordinary band. His voice is fingernails on the blackboard for some, but I consider his timbre absolutely ideal for the sort of songs he writes. No frills, no adornment, no tremolo, just dead-straight delivery, reminding me of an evil BRUCE COCKBURN. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on the underrated 'Cocoon', where his voice complements a beautiful, gentle song, one of the album's highlights. The COCKBURN comparisons continue on 'Grace Cathedral Hill', as MELOY employs a site-specific slice-of-life lyric, including such gems as "we went to get a hot dog" and "the air, it stunk of fish and beer". 'Legionnaire's Lament' is clever and upbeat but musically limited, sounding startlingly like something THE WATERBOYS might have done in their folk period.

The album finishes with the curious love song 'Clementine' and the extended 'California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade', the latter two songs grafted together, in many ways the title track to this album and the lyrical conclusion to the many themes offered here. It's the band's first prog offering, and is worth listening to. Opening with a riff that could easily have found a home on Led Zeppelin III, we are led along the California coast, lazing in the sun, head fuzzy with wine, only for the pace to change as we are invited to enlist with the Youth and Beauty Brigade. The song captures both the glory and futility of life, the castaways and cutouts of society.

This album is superb. It is only the existence of far stronger material to come from THE DECEMBERISTS that keeps this from being more highly regarded.

russellk | 4/5 |


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