The Decemberists’ album offers a lineup of tunes that would soothe Shakespeare on a balmy evening.
“Picaresque.” The Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars)
By Salima Appiah-Kubi
If life were as it should be, The Decemberists would be minstrels touring the hamlets of Elizabethan England. In an age of recycled guitar riffs, inordinate sampling, and mash-ups, the group’s musical borrowing in their exquisite new release, “Picaresque,” makes for a fun trip in the wayback machine, a lineup of tunes that would soothe Shakespeare on a balmy evening.
The Decemberists are among an increasing number of bands who successfully defy genre or comparison. The group’s deft lyricism calls to mind Paul Simon or Nick Drake in the group’s folk moments while their quirkier numbers echo contemporary Britpop. At best they can be described as indie folk rock, since “indie” has become the catchall term for music outside the mainstream. Regardless of labels, The Decemberists, a Portland-based quartet (sometimes quintet) are venturing into wonderful territory.
With vocals whose musical whine floats somewhere between Bob Dylan and a mellow Get Up Kids, Colin Meloy manages to pull off the the album’s languid theatrical numbers as well its upbeat ones. The band is rounded out by Jenny Conlee on accordion, Chris Funk on theremin and pedal steel guitar, Nate Query on upright bass and Ezra Holbrook on drums.
“Picaresque” begins with the sound of an unidentifiable instrument: it might even be the cry of the blue whale. This is followed by Holbrook pounding a driving rhythm on the drums to herald “The Infanta,” a song detailing the procession of a young princess. The song is as lush with lyrical ingenuity as it is with its orchestration. Not only does each song on the album tell a story, but each tale plunges the listener into a different place and time. “Eli the Barrow Boy” calls forth images of coal mines and dusty streets, with the obligatory homage to working class mortality. The song has a slight country twang left over from Meloy’s previous musical venture with an alt-country group.
Chronicling a young man’s very public athletic embarrassment, “The Sporting Life” is one of the album’s few upbeat songs: its jangly rhythm sounds like a poppy “Lust for Life.” The song highlights a Charlie Brown-like mix of determination and defeat: “I’ll prove to the crowd that I’ll come out stronger, though I think I might lie here a little longer.” The wry juxtaposition of adolescent angst and cheerful melody puts our hero in a long and honorable lineage of tragic teens.
The album’s love song is “The Bagman’s Gambit,” which begins with a gentle strum guitar ?a Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.” The tune chronicles a romance between a civil servant and a spy. As the story progresses, the drums and Conlee’s accordion shift the tempo into high. This transformation coincides with the addition of a chorus which details the couple’s passion, giving a delicate texture to the story.
The first single off the album, “16 Military Wives,” shows that the balladeers are not afraid to get political. Its chirpy organ backs lyrics blasting arrogance in U.S. foreign policy. The not-so-subtle chorus cries “‘Cause America can, and America can’t say no and America does, if America says it’s so.”
This giddy protest yowl is one of the album’s highlights, but its centerpiece is “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which showcases the quintessential elements of the band’s style. Clocking it at over eight minutes, the song is an authentic ballad, the tale of how a young man wound up, along with his mortal enemy, in the belly of a whale. The song’s 18th century sound showcases Conlee’s accordion skills and Meloy’s dramatic storytelling. As in the rest of the album, the instrumentation is subtle: Query’s bass is unobtrusive and Funk’s guitar work is showy only when necessary.
Given all the navel-gazing in today’s music, The Decemberists’ appeal may be rooted, at least in part, in an all-too-rare focus on music rather than personality. It’s a joy to hear songs about something other than an alienated singer’s complaints about existence. Instead, the group focuses on characters and their stories. The ensemble has mastered a narrative style that takes songwriting clich?and turns them on their heads. All the rock and roll staples are here — love, sex, pain, and loss — but renewed because the group approaches them from a refreshingly historical perspective.