Kill Rock Stars, 2002
"Castaways and Cutouts" is a mellow debut from The Decemberists, low-key compared to this year's ambitious "Picaresque", but still effortlessly melodic. Colin Meloy's stories of people, places, past and present times are tastefully arranged, with acoustic strumming, flowing accordions, and soft pedal steel licks blending into a subtle, pastel-shaded folk rock. Moreover, Meloy has enlightened me how a nasal singing voice with unusual vowels can actually have a pleasing strength.
Guitar and accordion ballads like "Leslie Anne Levine" mingle with upbeat, organ-fuelled numbers like "July! July!". Little touches such as the sweet guitar pings on "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" give a relaxed, melodic decoration to their fluently wordy lyrics. And sometimes they take a completely different turn, as on "Cautionary Song", which announces the Decemberists' fetish for twisted sea shanties. The most extravagant song is "Odalisque", which whirls through a series of contrasting episodes, centred on a savage grinding middle section.
To a listener venturing backwards from the sparkling "Picaresque", there seems to be an over-preponderance of sleepy songs on this album, especially later on. The nostalgic one-fingered piano melody on "Cocoon", like something from some easy-listening classic, works well, but I could take or leave "Grace Cathedral Hill". In the middle of the downers, I'm thankful for "Legionnaires Lament", which sees them at their peak of bounciness and lyrical fluency.
But this laid-back mood is exactly what we need for the finale, the hazy highway journey "California One Youth and Beauty Brigade". Appropriately for its theme, it's one of those long songs which doesn't seem to last as long as it does, with perfect control of its countryish sweep and the climb to its final chorus.
November 3, 2005