Tuesday, February 22, 2005

pic·a·resque

Of or involving clever rogues or adventurers.
Of or relating to a genre of usually satiric prose fiction originating in Spain and depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society.

The Decemberists' new album has been leaked to the Internet and despite the band's pleas not to download it, I couldn't help myself. But, don't worry, guys! I'm one of your pyscho fans who's bought everything you've put out, including the most recent Billy Liar EP and I have a personally signed cover of Her Majesty (from San Francisco, in Amoeba, the kid with the glasses, remember?). And I'm a big fan, as evidenced by the following blog posts: The Tain EP magically appears on my birthday!, I see the band a few days later, I first hear about Picaresque.

And since I love practicing reviewing (for a future career that probably won't happen), here I go, again. I'm going to review the album song by song because anything less would be disrespectful.

A shout from the rooftops proclaims the beginning of a bold new Decemberists adventure. An accelerating drum beat starts off "The Infanta" (another volculabry word meaning a Spanish princess). A worthy successor to "The Shany for the Artheusa," the band pulls a quick tempo out of a dark bog to tell the story of, you guessed it, a Spanish child princess. Accordion swirls and piano flourishes lay the backbone for this tale, which begins with the child appearing on stage on the back of an elephant, sent off to audition for a prince, bought, and bedded. Visercal images are this song's greatest trait, even for the Decemberists' brilliant songwriter, Colin Meloy, this is a new height and sets a wonderful mood of jubilation and dejection.

"We Both Go Down Together" highlights a new member of the band, a violinist. Her Mozartian rhythm, full of pomp and emotion, is memorable and hummable. This song tells a disjointed Romeo and Juliet tale that could be set in the slave South. Lines like, "You come from parents wonton, childhood rough and rotten, I come from wealth and beauty, untouched by work or duty," and "and while the seagulls are crying, we fall but our souls are flying" just scream with unbridled emotion. A passionate chorus, simply, "Oh, my love, my love, we both go down together," could bring tears to the most stoic chauvinist. Once again, Colin Meloy is the heart and of the band, filling each word with so much emotion, it's almost too much for this early in the album, but the reserve by the rest of the band grounds this piece. A definite standout.

The mood lightens with "The Sporting Life," telling the seemingly autobiographical tale of a shy boy who falls in the middle of "the big game" in front of his father, his girlfriend, and his coach, much to their disappointment. A welcome throwback to Her Majesty comes in the form of a bombastic chorus and much-appreciated brass for the finale. A quiet uchillica twiddles in the background as Colin tells the story with many visual cues, "they condescend to fix on me on a frown," "I fell on the playing field, the work of an errant heel." The song is kind of a stepsister to "The Soldiering Life" and "Shiny," some of the Decemberists' best work.

Next comes the classic ghost-story which no Decemberists record could do without. "Eli, The Barrowboy" paints a setting with very little instrumentation. A simple steel guitar strummed in broken harmony and Meloy's cooing voice telling another tale of love and death. One of the band's most heartbreaking lyrics is found right here, "Would I could afford to buy my love a fine gown, made of gold and silk Arabian thread. But I am dead and gone and lying in a church ground and still I push my barrow all the day." Drummer Rachel Blumberg (who, unfortunately, left the band after recording this album) appears to sing gorgeous background vocals. I'll miss her contributions.

The album's first "major" (read: long) song, "The Bagman's Gambit" is a strange one. It tells the story of a diplomat who meets and falls in love with the narrator, a presumably female Government employee who commits treason at the behest of the diplomat. Another sparse guitar setting makes way for a violent chorus of banging drums and soaring guitars. After the second verse, as the story becomes more clear and layered, another wonderful line, "And at the gate of the Embassy, our hands met through the bars, as your whisper stilled my heart," leading to the crying chorus line, "No, they'll never catch me now!!" Possibly the best moment on any Decemberists record yet. Then the song takes another emotional dip to chaotic noise and a ripping climax that will put many people off, including myself. When deep into the song's mood and story, the almost full-minute of splattering noise feels right, but otherwise it can be a jarring, distracting, moment in otherwise moving song. I felt the same way about the finale of Her Majesty's "I Was Meant for the Stage," and though I love that song just like I love this one, I find myself reaching for the skip button every once in awhile.

Another quiet piece, "From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)," could be a sequel to "Eli, The Barrowboy," telling a story of grief and loss with incredibly moving appreiggos by Meloy and sparklingly fresh accordion playing from the band's friendlist member, Jenny. The chorus, "Mister Postman, do you have a letter for me?" is another memorable moment. This album, produced by Chris Walla from the rising stars Death Cab for Cutie, is obviously trying to stretch the Decemberist's niche appeal with traditional song structures and pop-friendly chorus lines, and unlike other bands attempts to "sell out," I believe it works. This album is the sound of a band totally confident in their abilities. One only needs to hear this album to fall in love with them.

The first single, "Sixteen Military Wives," is an audacious piece, criticizing the current administration and their war mongering policies in oh-so-beautiful ways. One of the band's best drum rhythms, another brass section!, and a sweet, bright, pace make this song an obvious highlight. The tongue in cheek chorus, totally fun to sing along too, goes like this: "Cause America can and America can't say no and America does and if America says it's so, it's so. And the anchorperson on TV goes, la di da." The brass shows up to counterpoint the la-di-da's in a wonderful and fun moment that brings to mind early Decemberists songs like "The Legionnaire's Lament" and "July, July." A good choice for a single (the video should be awesome), but I would have gone with..

"The Engine Driver," which, strangely enough, digs up a rhythm that could be used in a Coldplay song. It's an obvious pop-song enterprise which fills the equation of perfect pop song in almost every way (except being slightly over four minutes), especially the random chorus line: "If you don't love me, let me go." I'm not exactly sure what this song is about but its strange mystery draws me ever closer. And especially the centerpiece lines, which are close to my heart: "And I am a writer, a writer of fictions.. and I've written pages upon pages, trying to rid you from my heart." Okay, not the most original words Meloy has ever written, but the rest of the band steps up with creative flourishes (especially from Jenny, as usual). I figure the band sat around and said, "Hey, if Modest Mouse could do it..." I hope the band gets some mainstream play with this song, they deserve to eat well.

But back to real Decemberists material. "On the Bus Mall" tells the heartbreaking and brilliant story of two run-away male prostitutes living "in a ratrap hotel by the freeway," working in the bus depot. Meloy takes this off-the-beaten-path material and makes it feel so real and dramatic, the man's literary talents are evident as never before. The narrator feels a strange pride in his work and an extremely close relationship to his compatriot but yet he "will not mourn" for him. Musically, this song features some incredible work by guitarist Chris Funk's offbeat talent. A churning drum beat drives the song in a brave, original, piece of musical foreshadowing.

Finally, the massive and incredible (excuse me, but it's true), "The Mariner's Revenge Song." It starts off with, "We are two mariners, our ship's soul survivors, in this belly of a whale! Its ribs our ceiling beams, its guts are carpeting, I guess we have some time to kill." And then tells the interweaving story of the two survivors, how one cheated his widowed mother out of love and money and then ran off, how the other vowed revenge, worked in a vestry, signed on with a privateer ship, and followed the first across the sea. A sea-shanty rhythm that seems to come straight from the 17th century sets the stage. The Decemberists have perfected this mood, first with "A Cautionary Tale" from their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, others, and now this. While treading paths they've taken before, they expound on their love of this genre and bring new, magical, dimensions to it. The story takes a violent turn when the main characters meet and then, like something out of Moby Dick, Meloy sings, "The ocean shook, the sky went black.. And before us grew the angry jaws of a giant whale!" A musical finale ends the piece, which says everything words can't, caps off this charming, impressive, song. They should teach this in schools.

Referencing Her Majesty once again, a post-climax final song, "Of Angels and Angles" is quiet, short, and leaves you with a great taste in your ears. Playing mainly on the alliteration of the words angels and angles, the song is perfect in its simplicity.

I don't think I have to say it, but I will anyway: The Decemberists have done it again. Best album yet.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

hello, i happened upon your review through a google search, actually, and being a loyal fan of the decemberists, decided to read it. it's quite a fun review, but i had to comment and correct one thing for you. "we both go down together" takes place in england, quite literally, on the white cliffs of dover.

Anonymous said...

Hey...I'm a pretty big fan of the Decemberists as well. I came across your review while I was trying to figure out exactly where On the Bus Mall is set. I'm thinking Portland, but I'm not really sure. I liked your review...learned a lot about the songs I guess. But can you tell me how to pronouce Colin's last name?

MEE - loy?
ma - LOY?

Elad said...

hey guys! glad you liked the review. always glad to meet other fans.

now that I have the shiny and silly sleeve for the CD, I see it is clearly "Dover" as the setting for "We Both Go Down Together." I would love to have printed lyrics while writing this strictly amateur review.

I wonder if you guys have seen The Decemberists perform? if you haven't, you must. They won't come play in my dumbass new home of South Florida (and I don't blame them) so I'm planning to dish out some hard-earned money and fly up to NYC to see them in early May. (*hopefully!*)

And, Anonymous #2, I believe it's pronounced Ma-Loy. And "On The Bus Mall" is probably set in any-indigant-town-USA.

Another bonus for you guys:

http://kexp.org/aspnet_client/KEXPViewMediaGroup.aspx?rID=2548&pID=528&fID=1085&date=1085

Anonymous said...

hey! about your futurecarrerthatsnever gonnahappen... maybe you can practice even more in www.rateyourmusic.com...check it oput (i sware they wont give me no money for thiss ;)
i enjhoied your review (naw i have to listento decemberist -never heard of them in my life-) and maybe some other people should read it too
see ya! hope to read of you in the rolling stone hehe