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What I’m listening to this week: The Decemberists

August 11, 2009

Castaways and Cutouts – 2002

The Decemberists are one of those acts that you either appreciate and like or you just don’t.   Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy has quite a unique vocal instrument; he sings with an indefinable slight accent, intentionally invoking an old-world enunciation of sorts, and with that, emotions that you have to use old-world words to describe, like merriment, joviality, admonition, and wistfulness.  That combined with the lyrics he crafts – they’ve been described numerous times as “hyper-literate”; chock full of obscure literary references, antiquated references, and bygone themes – can be a bit much for some.  And indeed, that may be the case on later albums, but on The Decemberists’ debut, Castaways and Cutouts, Meloy is thoroughly charismatic, his vocals leading the charge in delivering the stories of the “castaways” he writes about in the lyrics.  And the rest of the band, including several multi-instrumentalists, surround Meloy’s storytelling with a high-spirited blend of folk and chamber music, balanced with a healthy dose of modern pop sensibility.

The album begins with “Leslie Anne Levine”, a somewhat disturbing song about a forgotten baby who passed away shortly after birth that begins with the lyrics: “My name is Leslie Anne Levine/My mother birthed me down a dry ravine/My mother birthed me far too soon/Born at nine and dead at noon”.  That and “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” sum up the wistful quality of the album pretty nicely, and while they’re not necessarily ear-catching, the lyrics remain interesting.  Castaways and Cutouts really takes off after the third track, “July, July!” (and any song with an exclamation point is bound to upbeat, right?).  “July, July!” provides the band with it’s first concert sing-along chorus, hiding the dismaying subject matter amidst a chirpy and strummy guitar-driven musical backdrop, accenting Meloy’s jubilant vocals.

“A Cautionary Song” features the most obvious gypsy music influence with the accordian and measured drum beats.  Meloy’s voice is appropriately rougher here to match the shambolic music quality as well as the subject matter, a tale for the ungrateful children of a mother who would do anything to keep food in their mouths.  The next track, “Odalisque”, is also a woeful tale about a Turkish prostitute, and it’s the effective centerpiece of Castaways and Cutouts.  It also sounds the most like The Decemberists of late; multi-structured, musically diverse, and switching between the melodic and the theatrical throughout its nearly five and a half minutes.

“Cocoon” mellows out the mood with a slow, pastoral piano line and low-key acoustic guitar.  Those elements give the song a ’70s acoustic feel, with several key distinctions of course: the intricate lyrical structure, Meloy’s voice, and the lack of a discernible chorus.  “Grace Cathedral Hill” stays on that path, but adds some organ and a bit more pop structure into the mix, creating a lovely nostalgia.  “The Legionnaire’s Lament”, near the end of the album, is also one of the best tracks.  The Decemberists kick up that freewheeling energetic folk again, utilizing the organ and playful guitar strumming in one of the most entertainingly written songs on the album.  Choice example: “Medicating in the sun/Pinched doses of laudanum/Longing for the old fecundity of my homeland/Curses to this mirage!”

“Clementine” and “California One” both revert back to the style found at the beginning of the album; they’re more reserved and quieter, filled with longing.  Attached to the end of “California One” is “Youth and Beauty Brigade”, a song full of biting wit and a calling card of sorts that ends Castaways and Cutouts very fittingly after an entire album’s worth of singing about society’s abandoned rejects: “We’re lining up the light loafer’d, and the bored bench-warmers/Castaways and cutouts, fill it up/Come join the Youth and Beauty Brigade/Nothing will stand in our way”.

Castaways and Cutouts is among The Decemberists most accessible work.  The themes and lyrics may be out of the ordinary, but the overall feel of the album is approachable.  The music is so enchanting and Meloy’s voice is so mellifluous that it doesn’t really matter if you catch all the references or not.  The pop affectations are perfectly placed to accommodate all the other unique characteristics of the band.  Picking up those oddities is part of the fun of liking The Decemberists anyway, so get this album and have at it.

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