Saturday, February 11, 2012
Picaresque - The Decemberists
Kill Rock Stars/Jealous Butcher KRS425/JB-053
I bought this from the Kill Rock Stars website. They are one of my favorite labels not only because of their excellent roster of artists, but also because of their commitment to vinyl even during the dark days of the CD era. This double record set is a high quality product, a model of what records should be. It is made of heavy cardboard with a handsome lyric booklet made from glossy paper featuring stylish calligraphy and amusing photographs. Curiously the photographs in the album booklet are largely different from the photographs in the CD booklet and the vinyl version has five extra tracks not on the CD! I've been a fan of the Decemberists since about 2003 when I bought "Castaways and Cutouts" and I've been a devoted follower ever since. Colin Meloy is arguably the most erudite figure in alternative rock and his love of language permeates the album so much that you practically need to keep a dictionary next to you to figure out the lyrics. The title of this album for example refers to a literary form derived from a genre of classical Spanish literature. This is also apparent in the opening song "The Infanta" which describes a procession honoring a newborn Spanish princess in very colorful terms. If anyone has ever used the word "infanta" in a pop song, I've never heard about it. The song describes the parade in detail and then Meloy throws in a twist at the end suggesting that the royal infant may be of more humble origin. After the exotic touch of the blowing of a shofar at the opening of the song, the music gets the album off to a rousing start with one of the more thunderous and fast-paced songs in the Decemberists' catalog. "We Both Go Down Together" depicts a rich guy in love with a poor girl who jump off the cliffs of Dover because they can't be together due to parental disapproval. The song has a catchy riff, a lovely violin line and a yearning vocal from Meloy that has just a touch of sardonicism hinting that the narrator (the rich guy) is a bit unhinged. It is followed by the very grim "Eli The Barrow Boy." I only know the meaning of "barrow boy" because Richard Thompson referred to one in his equally grim song, "The End of the Rainbow." This folk-style song reminds me quite a bit of Thompson's early work with its mournful vocal and haunting accordion solo, it would fit quite well on "Hokey Pokey" or "Henry The Human Fly." The song depicts the misery of the title character, tormented by his poverty and the death of his beloved, he ultimately drowns himself. When I first heard this album, I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard the big drum beat that introduces and pulses through "The Sporting Life." The song sounds like a cross between Motown and David Bowie's "Modern Love." At last a Decemberists song for the dance clubs! The song is written from the perspective of an adolescent soccer player who has suffered an injury in a losing effort in an important match and has to deal with the disappointment of his coach and his father as well as losing his girlfriend to the captain of the winning team, ouch. Side B opens with "The Bagman's Gambit" which narrates the story of a United States Government employee who has a love affair with a Russian spy which involves the American giving the spy government secrets. When the spy gets detained by the Russians who suspect duplicity, the American travels to St. Petersburg and bribes a bureaucrat to release her. Who but Colin Meloy would turn something like this into a pop song? The music is a roller coaster ride, alternating between gentle acoustic sections and parts where the full band jumps in roaring like the Arcade Fire as well as a trippy dream sequence near the end. It is one of the best songs on the album. "From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)" is another folk song. It is a relatively simple song in which an elderly person hopes for a letter from a lover lost at sea. "Sixteen Military Wives" is an unusually topical song for Meloy. He attacks American arrogance, imperialism, pompous celebrities, the Academy Awards and spineless, inane media coverage. There is a recurrent motif of numbers running through the song that is suggestive of a children's song or nursery rhyme but the content of the song itself is scathing and direct. In contrast to the anger in the words, the music is jaunty and joyful with a rich instrumental sound bolstered by the prominent use of horns. It is one of the catchiest songs that Meloy has ever written. The band also made an amusing video for the song with Meloy playing an overgrown, belligerent schoolboy and it is well worth checking out if you've never seen it. The side ends with the exquisite "The Engine Driver." The song depicts a writer trying to deal with an unrequited love by expressing his unhappiness through various fictitious characters. The elegant, heartfelt lyrics are complemented by some lovely and memorable melodies. Side C kicks off with the equally beautiful "On the Bus Mall" although the lyrical content could hardly be more different as it describes the struggles and the bond between two teenage runaways working as gay prostitutes. The song is full of evocative imagery, it is brilliant lyric writing. Next up a lively accordion riff introduces the epic and extraordinary "The Mariner's Revenge Song" which is my favorite Decemberists song. I saw them perform it during the encore at their show at the Greek Theatre last summer and their stirring rendition of it just blew me away. It is a wonderful theatrical song full of shifting textures and melodies that recounts the tale of a young sailor's revenge against the scoundrel responsible for his mother's ruin and death while the pair are trapped in the belly of a whale. Again who else but Colin Meloy would ever write a pop song like this? After this raucous number, the side finishes sedately with the tender acoustic song "Of Angels and Angles" which is about a couple enduring life's travails together with the singer finding beauty and comfort in his partner. It provides a delicate and soothing finish to the album proper. As I mentioned above, vinyl lovers get a bonus with this album. Side D contains "Picaresqueties" five bonus tracks that are far better than your average bonus tracks. Thematically all of them would have fit nicely on the album, although instrumentally they are more stripped down. "The Bandit Queen" opens and closes the side. The first version has a honky tonk piano and sounds like a western saloon song. It opens with some dialogue and features tap dancing during the break. The second version is just Meloy and an acoustic guitar and is more like a folk song. It tells of the singer's love for the nine-fingered titular character. There is a folk cover of Joanna Newsom's "Bridges and Balloons" and it is easy to see why it would appeal to Meloy with its dazzling language and outlandish rhymes - "caravel" paired with "Cair Paravel." "Constantinople" is loosely adapted from the legend of Hero and Leander and describes how a magistrate's daughter is engaged to a sultan but loves another and how her lover drowns swimming to her across a river - "painted by the Bosporus in blue" as Meloy elegantly puts it - just your typical pop song. "The Kingdom of Spain" starts like a companion to "The Infanta" but changes direction to ruminate on our helplessness in the sway of love. It is just Meloy and a piano, another gorgeous song. Side D is a wonderful and generous gift from the Decemberists to us vinyl lovers. The Decemberists are one of my favorite groups, I'm so grateful to Meloy for creating such intelligent and eclectic music. I like dumb pop songs as much as the next guy, but I'd rather listen to something that stimulates my mind as well as my body. One of the more intriguing aspects of Meloy's work is the way he has managed to blend the styles and themes of traditional Anglo-American folk music with modern pop music with a skill that is rivaled only by Richard Thompson. How ironic that the true heirs to Fairport Convention should emerge from Portland of all places. Recommended to Scrabble fans who dig folk rock.