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The Decemberists
by: Sun-J

The Decemberists consist of organist/keyboardist Jenny Conlee, drummer Rachel Blumberg, bassist Nate Quer, lyricist Colin Meloy, and utility man Chris Funk. Picaresque, The Decemberists third full length work was recorded in Portland, Oregon; in a building which used to be a Baptist Church, adding even more to the eerie glow of enchanted instrumentation. The Decemberists consider themselves a theatrical performance; their albums usually seem to have a central figure or character; in other words every song on the album can be related in one way or another. Their breakaway album, 2003's Her Majesty The Decemberists was a stronger album than Castaways and Cutouts, and now we are presented with Picaresque, another musical upgrade. Literally, 'picaresque' pertains to rogues or rascals, and the title could not be more perfect forthe flow of the album content. Lyricist, and lead singer, Colin Meloy has compiled a series of tracks about Oregon male prostitutes, aspiring athletes who are faced with ugly reality, cold war spies entangled in a web of politics, Spanish princesses, sailors, and much more. The problem that 2003's Her Majesty The Decemberists faced was when Meloy would use words that seemed to just be there because they rhymed with something, in other words, at times the lyrics themselves felt a little artificial, as if the songs were only rendered for visual aesthetic. Picaresque reveals no such problem, and more so, each track seems to be its own independent tale. Produced by guitarist/songwriter Chris Walla, Picaresque is an eleven song journey into a short collection of short stories.

The album opens with Blumberg pounding on drums before embracing an organ loop courtesy of Jenny Conlee on "The Infanta." The catchy one line chorus "...and we'll all come praise the infanta...," adds to the dramatic feel the song. The lyrics are very lucid and build with momentum; "And as she sits upon her place, her innocence laid on her face, from all atop the parapetsblow a multitude of coronets, melodies rhapsodical and fair, and all our hearts afire, the sky ablaze with cannon fire, we all raise our voices to the air, to the air..." The next track, "We Both Go Down Together" is a story of the suicide of two lovers separated by a caste. The galloping guitars and pounding drums paint an appropriately intimate soundscape. "The Sporting Life" is a tale of the dying dreams of a vicarious father; "And father had had such hopes, for a song who would take the ropes and fulfill all his old athletic aspirations, but apparently now there's some complications..." The instrumentation avoids blandness with a stout banjo. Lyrically, "Eli, The Barrowboy" is very strong with strong metaphorical imagery; "Would I could afford to buy my love a fine robe, made of gold and silk Arabian thread, she is dead and gone lying in a pine grove..." "The Bagman's Gambit" features a subtle acoustic guitar and is a story about a women and a soviet spy, and their dedication to each other, "...and for the tryst in the greenery, I gave you documents and microfilm too..." "From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)" is one of the handful of songs which feature Rachel Blumberg's vocals. Her voice blends with Meloy's outcries. "Sixteen Military Wives" is a standout track. The instrumentation is increasingly more upbeat than any track. This track almost seems as it was conjured as strictly an attractive consumer trap. Nonetheless it is very catchy and touches on recent politics combining the American invasion of Iraq with the Academy Awards Ceremony ("Eighteen academy chairs, out of which only seven really even care, doling out a garment to five, celebrity mimes, they're humbly taken by surprise"). "The Engine Driver" is very nostalgic with respect to their previous album works. From a lyrical standpoint, this track uses the simplest derivations of words, yet still retains a strong metaphorical balance. "On The Bus Mill" in my opinion has to be one of Meloy's best lyrical works. Amid lush synth, light drums, and warm guitars, Meloy tales of runaway prostitutes; "And here in our hollow we fuse like a family, but I will not mourn for you. So take up your makeup and pocket your pills away. We're kings among runaways on the bus mall, we're down on the bus mall." "The Mariner's Revenge Song" opens with an ethnic accordion while the closing track, "Angels of Angels" continues the trend of soft endings to each album.

The Decemberists have shown vast improvement, and Picaresque is a more accurate depiction of what their live shows are like. It is unfortunate that this was Rachel Blumberg's last contribution (she left the band shortly after it was finished), her vocals had seemed to mature and were a nice blend and changeup from Meloy's vocals. This is easily Meloy's best lyrical work as well. This is a strong release for the Kill Rock Stars label, and is sure to be a fan appeaser, and crowd pleaser.


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