08 October 2008

The Decemberists
5 Songs (CD version)
Hush Records, 2003 (original 2001)

I was listening to “All Things Considered” in December 2006 when I first heard of the Decemberists -- they had just been selected “Record of the Year” by NPR listeners (even though the album had only been released in October), and in the course of the piece a track was played from the new album, The Crane Wife. What’s this? Intelligent lyrics with a touch of the tragic, the use of arcane vocabulary, dark thoughts sung in a strong, clear voice over folk-esque guitars and Americana/rock backdrops? I was resolved to enquire further.

Having bought the album proper a few weeks later and subsequently collected all the “b-sides” and “bonus tracks” for it -- depressingly only available in digital form -- I was properly enthralled. Here was a band that actually made me excited to hear their next new track, a band I would stay up late to see perform on some talk show, a band I was eager to see in concert. Few “new” artists came anywhere close to inspiring this level of "fandom" in me, and it was nice to get re-acquainted with the gushing idol-worship urgency of my misspent youth.

A stray video from an earlier work -- “16 Military Wives” from Picaresque -- and a song heard off college radio (“The Sporting Life” from the same album) convinced me this was a band that could be and was one of the greats. A band I would actually want to collect -- the first new such band in what seems like ages. How, I wondered, had they amassed such a large body of work (roughly four full albums’ worth of material prior to the release of The Crane Wife, in only five years time!) until their most recent efforts broke through?

I was struck, over the course of the following year, at how hard it was to find any of their back catalogue on sale in the used bins I generally perused. It wasn’t until our big trip to Portland (the band’s hometown) that I finally found decent prices on Picaresque, Castaways & Cutouts, and their debut EP, now obsoletely-named 5 Songs (the CD version actually contains a bonus track, making the total six songs, but the vinyl original’s title was accurate).

So here we are at the beginning of the Decemberists’ voyage, and although comparison to The Crane Wife shows some growth, the early sound is surprisingly consistent with what’s gone on since: sharp lyrical stories, florid language decorating serio-comic tales, supported on a foundation of folky pop and rock that draws heavily from early 60s to late 70s influences.

Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy’s bell-like, boyish voice kicks off 5 Songs with the west coast ballad “Oceanside,” which was clearly meant to be the “single,” as it’s far and away the “safest’ song, rife with Beach Boys-meet-the-Eagles California touches. It’s a surprisingly “normal” tune from a band named after an 1825 Russian revolt, but even there it’s a bit more dark than anything in the Top 40: “If I could only get you oceanside/To lay your muscles wide/It’d be heavenly./Oh, if I could only coax you overboard/to leave these lulling shores/To get you oceanside.”

The familiar “train’s a-rollin’” sound of the folk scene and a hundred country road songs follows with “Shiny,” complete with pedal steel guitar and accordion. Even the lyrics paint a more rural picture -- have a listen for yourself:

“Shiny” by The Decemberists from 5 Songs

Now I ask you: when was the last time you heard such vivid verse in a modern rock song?

Musically, you’ll be saying to yourself “Where have I heard this before?” all throughout the record. “Shiny” pinches from “Nadia’s Theme,” “My Mother was a Chinese Trapeze Artists” (more about that one in a minute) borrows liberally from REM’s “Swan Swan H,” and with “Angel Won’t You Call Me” I can’t decide if it’s Warren Zevon or George Harrison (or both) that they’re ripping off Figured it out -- it's Three Dog Night's "Shambala". Meloy seems to have hit on a winning strategy of borrowing musical phrases from his heroes and inspirations but disguising his thievery with whimsical, colourful lyrics that give the songs a fresh feel. “Angel” in particular shows off Meloy’s affinity for young Van Morrison, and although their singing styles are nothing alike I do think he reaches for Morrison’s brass ring of “purity of poetry” in his lyrics.

The centerpiece of this EP is “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist.” Proof that the storytelling form can be stretched to the breaking point, Meloy tells a ridiculous tale that almost reads like a Mad Lib of impossible locales and a family tree as convoluted as naked triplets playing Twister. Although musically fascinating, it’s a rare misfire that breaks the bubble of believability. Here’s the first two stanzas, see if you see the problem:

“My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist
In pre-war Paris
Smuggling bombs for the underground.
And she met my father
At a fete in Aix-en-Provence.
He was disguised as a Russian cadet
in the employ of the Axis.
And there in the half-light
Of the provincial midnight
To a lone concertina
They drank in cantinas
And toasted to Edith Piaf
And the fall of the Reich.

My sister was born in a hovel in Burgundy
And left for the cattle
But later was found by a communist
Who’d deserted his ranks
To follow his dream
To start up a punk rock band in South Carolina.
I get letters sometimes.
They bought a plantation
She weeds the tobacco
He offends the nation
And they write, ‘Don't be a stranger, y’hear?’
Sincerely, your sister.”

Later efforts at epic tall-tale-telling, most notably on Castaways & Cutouts and The Crane Wife, are far more successful. Still, like the aforementioned triplets, it’s impressive watching it all unravel.

If you’ve ever longed for a more muscular Belle & Sebastian, with a voice less fey and more sexually secure -- or perhaps a more consistent and prolific Neutral Milk Hotel, you might go for the Decemberists. After all, when are NPR listeners ever wrong? :)

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