Friday, February 27, 2004

"In this place called Heavenly, you were born here.."

Nothing like a surprise on your birthday! I spent a considerable amount of hours earlier this week looking for this in record shops, online sites, file-sharing-programs, but, nothing. I finally decided it was coming out next Tuesday. And when I went to Amoeba yesterday, I went looking for a different album (a birthday present to myself), but! what did I find, but the Decemberists' new EP, The Tain.

It's wondrous. A faint hint of experimentation has always been present in the Decemberists work. From the epic-length "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade" (three songs meshed into one), to the random Wild West noise of "Shanty for the Arthuesa," the promise of something larger on the horizon was always present (to me, anyway.) It's part of what makes The Decemberists my favorite band of the moment: The confidence that makes me sure better things are yet to come.

And The Tain is the first step. An 18-minute-long song, divided into five easily recognizable parts, telling the loose story of a runaway bride and her trials and tribulations. Allow me an attempt at describing it:

The Tain begins with the plucking of a familiar sounding steel guitar. A groovey riff like out of the drugged-out-seventies, and Colin's Meloy gorgeous crone filling up the soundscape as if you, and the band, were in a tiny, tiny room (with good acoustics). And then sudden explosions of drums and guitars! A mood is introduced unlike anything the Decemberists have done before. Part 2 starts off with a fast-paced accordion barrage, electric guitar, and a driving rhythm. Backing vocals rise out of nowhere to back Meloy's whispered shout of "In this place called Heavenly, you were born here!" Another sea-style melody for the catalogue. Part 3 arrives after a quick fade-out, and introduces a sobering, sad, melody (think "I Don't Mind" off the 5 Songs EP). The massive song slows down here, allows you a chance to catch your breathe. It also happens to be one of the highlights, the last minute or so of Part 3 is a dramatic orgy of harmonies and plucked guitars and sporadic drums.

On the lyric sheet, part 4 starts off with a scene heading, Evening (all the lyrics are printed in play-format, as dialogue between a number of characters). (Random note: this is the first Decemberists song not written by Meloy, rather the drummer, Rachel Blumberg, referred to, once again, as The Widow.) Meloy comes in to do backing vocals on the choruses but Ms. Blumberg handles the singing requirement more than well. A melody that could only be created by an accordion lays down a quiet sleepy-time layer, with The Widow's cracked and vulnerable vocals whispering. Until the chorus! When the melody is enlivened, enriched, and expanded to create something that could only be described as a Carousel-rhythm, like something out of a 19th-century traveling-Russian carnival. It is surprising and beautiful.

Part 5 starts with a drum-hit. A number of them, piercing the silence, the beginnings of a march that never quite musters the energy to march. Meloy's lone vocals return, to cry, "Darling dear, what have you done? Your clothes are torn, your makeup's RUUUUUUUUUNNNNN" as the guitar-riffs return. Waves of sound rise up like an ocean in a storm. Crashing, breaking, rising again. The 70's grooves return, the waves become denser. A wall of sound like only The Decemberists could create blasts off: accordions wailing, guitars strumming, vocals soaring, drums pounding. A band of five sounds like an orchestra. A climax, followed by a sweet well-wish ("As you go wandering home…"), it ends calmly. A storm, passed.

Best Decemberists record yet? I think so, yes.

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