Kill Rock Stars, 2005
The shimmering arrangements, fluent tune-writing and poetic folk storytelling of "Picaresque" make the Decemberists yet another great Fluffhouse discovery of 2005. With an English folk sensibility that I didn't know was possible from Americans, they whirl through the centuries from flowery historical romanticism to universal tales of doomed love, from the point of view of a theatrical variety of characters. Colin Meloy's voice, with a Levellers-style nasal quality and bendy mannerisms on certain vowels, is an acquired taste but essential when you get used to it. Their acoustic guitar and organ base is coloured with all sorts of exotic instruments, and fused with a shiny production prettiness.
To throw around made-up genres, maybe this is prog-folk, if only for the pedantic care they take over the tunes and arrangements. Maloy's singing style distracted me from the fact that "The Infanta" sounds oddly like something by 1970's-era Genesis, with its exotic-royalty theme and frowning head-to-the-floor rhythms. Much more obviously prog in its length and range is "The Bagman's Gambit", narrating scenes of a dangerous love affair among CIA spooks and brown envelopes, to a piercingly lyrical tune and tingling acoustic harmonies. The surprise comes when it suddenly swells up in the middle to a symphonic burst of full-band noise, before returning to the acoustic theme to conclude the song.
The fiddle and accordion lilt of "We All Go Down Together" embeds us firmly in the English countryside. "The Sporting Life"'s shuffling poppy tale of playing-field muppetry is the one which drew obvious Belle and Sebastian comparisons. But these upbeat numbers are more effective for being contrasted with the stripped-down, wistful tales like the tearjerking gothic ballad "Eli, the Barrow Boy", and the darkly-arranged dirge "From My Own True Love".
"Sixteen Military Wives" is their take on bouncy anti-war irony, but it views its potentially-predictable theme from an unusually mathematical angle, to a rousing chorus and tootling horns. Also unusual is the verbosely poetic turn they take on down-town nostalgia on "On the Bus Mall" ("bus-stop enclosure enfolding"), to a deliciously smooth tune. This is segued from the similarly lyrical "The Engine Driver", its chorus adorned with floaty backing vocals from Rachel Blumberg.
One weaker link is "The Mariner's Revenge", which stretches out its "yarr"-ing accordion sea shanty for a couple of minutes too long. This isn't exactly losing the plot, more like concentrating too much on the plot, and without even a final twist in the story! To be fair, they do vary each of the verses with subtly different musical decorations, and insert a well-timed slow swinging middle section. Finally mellowness is restored as the album drifts away with the ultra-quiet acoustic postscript "Of Angels and Angles".
It's as grandiose and verbose as a folk-rooted album can be, but dripping with gorgeous melody.
September 7, 2005