US - Oregon - Full Moon 105 - 04/24/05
Kill Rock Stars
This is an album that all the critics are writing about. Tinymixtapes gave it a perfect score. Pitchfork, Stylus and Popmatters all think it's nearly perfect. Even Rolling Stone gave it 3 1/2 stars! And it's hard to pick up stars in Rolling Stone, the corporate whore rag that it is. The only mag that didn't seem to like it was Dusted, who says it's forced, shallow, fake, and rudimentary. I was personally taken with a few songs from The Decemberist's debut, and was definitely interested in this record for no other reason than to see how this Portland band has grown.
"The Infanta" begins with animal sounds and primal drumming. "And we'll all come crazy Infanta". Meloy's voice reminds me of John Darnielle's and to a much smaller extent Jeff Mangum. This is a hugely dramatic sound, a departure from the pop sensibility I was expecting. "We Both Go Down Together" is a piano heavy, minor-key, 6 feet under, serious grave piece. Way too much so for me. "Eli the Barrowboy" double-punches the minor-key territory. I have to admit that the production sounds damned nice on Picaresque. This song exemplifies it best, how clear and present the voices and guitar are. "I must push my barrow all the day". Lyrically the album is certainly exemplary, albeit too Serious. Surely young Mr. Meloy can't be this grave.
Then a funny thing happens. "The Sporting Life" is a damned fine tune. Listen to that Organ! Meloy's voice is at its most original, through inflection shedding his obvious connections to 90s indie-rock famers. "There's my father looking on, There's my girlfriend on time, With the Captain of the other team, and all of this is clear to me, they condescend, fix on me and frown, how they love, oh the sporting life". Now that's a chorus. His downtrodden lyrics work so amaingly with a beautiful popscape. Happy music and sad lyrics is the oldest trick in the book, and damned if this song doesn't just stick out as being obviously Miles better than the Eeyore arrangements that front-load the record.
Thick acoustic chords greet us in "The Bagman's Gambit". Really, the songs spend too much time without Meloy's full band just Aren't As Good. This is a band, and I like their sound. When it's just Meloy and his guitar I want to say: Save it for your solo record buddy. "The Bagman's Gambit" allows itself to open up throughout the song, and these moments are good. "No they'll never catch me now", the battlecry of the chorus sings. The song ends up going a direction that is completely unexpected, and surprises so much that it almost slaps you into liking it. An effect I'm quite fond of, actually.
"From My Own True Love" unfortunately gets back to the territory of the first 3 songs. "16 by 32" is an odd sounding pop song. The instrumention is really strange. "And the anchorperson on TV goes 'la di dah di dah'", he sings. Lyrically "16 by 32" is a song that makes more than a few really good points about America. This is another gem of a song on this rough and tumble album. "The Engine Driver" is a good sound. "There are powerlines in our bloodlines. And if you don't love me let me go. And I am a writer, a writer of fictions, I am a heart that you call home, and I've written pages and pages to try to rip you from my bones". Again I am very happy with this lyric writing. I think its probably the best thing about The Decemberists. "On the Bus Mall", in a wry move, uses a very similar guitar sound as "Engine Driver". Unforunately the melody reminds me too much of poor old Coldplay. That song that everybody makes fun of, you know the one with the backwards video and the car wreck? That really sucks, he may not even have realized he did it, but he did. Its like, the exact same notes. The lyrics are still good here, and the story is really nice, but he can't get away with using a Coldplay melody like that.
"The Mariner's Revenge Song" is penultimate and 8:47. Having an epic denouement like this just adds to a sense of enigma, which I believe may be something The Decemberists are interested in cultivating in themselves, and more power to them. If you don't listen to anything else off this album, say you think it's
just hype, well listen to "The Sporting Life". I'm with Dusted and Rolling Stone on this one, this is probably a 3 1/2 star album, although perhaps for different reasons.
Copyright © 2005 Bill Banks