Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Records In Review: The Decemberists--Picaresque

Album no. 3 from faux-gothic American mutant folksters The Decemberists. Damn--I really have to learn not to fire the bolt in the first paragraph. Well, please read on anyway...

Picaresque (released last spring) doesn't cosy up to you on the first listen. Hardly surprising: there's an awful lot of outlandish and over-the-top elements to assimilate right from the get-go, and the band's style ranges from hang-dog straight narrative folk ("Eli, The Barrow Boy," "From My Own True Love") to borderline power-pop ("16 Military Wives"), with a few stops in between. The line-up is what you'd expect from an outfit with folksy roots: acoustic guitar, upright bass, lightly-produced drums and accordion and/or hurdy-gurdy or something (don't have the liner notes), although augmented with a bit of electric guitar, some keyboards, and bold strings and horns that are fully integrated into the songs. Arrangements are uniformly confident, often swaggeringly so. Geetarist/mainman Colin Meloy has an unmistakable voice that not everyone is going to take to--extremely nasal with some strange diction. I find him distracting in a few places, but generally charming.

All other considerations aside, it's hard not to be impressed by Meloy's easy melodic facility, which really hits home with repeated listenings. One of my favorite tracks, the languid pop-folk "The Engine Driver," moves from section to section with incredible fluidity and grace because of the lovely vocal lines. The aforementioned and up-tempo "16 Military Wives," a hit single in my ideal alternate universe and a million miles away stylistically, is big and brassy but similarly derives a lot of strength from the forward motion of the vocals.

Back to the outlandish and over-the-top for a sec. The opening track, "The Infanta," (lyrics here) thunders along in all its semitonic glory like a psychotic bullfighting theme, painting a picture of the installation of a child queen. Exhilarating, but it's hurt a bit by its silliness, particularly in the break section, and could use a little editing and dialing back of the wild arrangement at the finale. Also in need of a little trim at the back is the otherwise excellent "The Bagman's Gambit," which effectively combines dynamically static acoustic guitar and vocal verses with some real foot-to-gas-pedal choruses--probably the most rockist approach on the album. The weakness in both songs is an (intermittent) hesitation about where to go next.

"The Sporting Life" (are these guys really Yanks?) is a very obvious Smiths homage, right down to the vocal inflections and intervals, and a very enjoyable one too. The lyrics are a light-hearted American transposition of The Mozzer's mopey loser shtick, which adds to the fun. The rest of the material I like very much, with the possible exception of "On The Bus Mall," which is fairly anonymous late-'80s jangle-pop, albeit very prettily arranged. The glacial "From My Own True Love" is, despite Meloy's annoying inflections in the chorus, my favorite of the folk tunes, but "Eli, The Barrow Boy" (I've double-checked: the band IS American!) gives it a run for the money. The nine-minute campy narrative "The Mariner's Revenge Song" is a hoot, but probably not for regular consumption. The guitar/vocal finale "Of Angels And Angles" is very pretty, and sounds like Nick Drake without the heavy hand. A nice palate cleanser to end the disc.

This review probably comes across as more critical than I intended. Even displaying a few errors in judgment, Picaresque is very lively and a good listen from start to finish, with variety and confident delivery to burn. Very much recommended.

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