Music Reviews
Her Majesty the Decemberists

The Decemberists Her Majesty the Decemberists

(Kill Rock Stars / Hush) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10

Devoted No Ripcord readers (and those who were especially bored this summer) may remember me heaping praise upon the broadening shoulders of Portland's The Decemberists and their superbly colourful debut, Castaways and Cutouts. The record had originally seen the light of day in 2002 courtesy of Hush Records, but it was the news of May 2003's higher profile split release (honours were shared between Hush and respected indie imprint Kill Rock Stars) that initially brought it to my attention. After reading a few favourable reviews of Castaways, I became more immediately intrigued than I had any right to be; living in the UK, where you can't hear a band through even semi-conventional means until the NME has deemed them worthy of hyping up (i.e. they have expensive haircuts, hail from Australia, or are "here to save rock 'n' roll" - again), I was finding it exceedingly difficult to track down even a single note these guys had put down on record. Finally, my fifteenth Google search yielded a favourable result - a site where I could download an mp3 of July, July - and from that moment on there was no turning back. I requested a promotional copy of the album immediately (thoughts that I could and should have done this earlier crossed my mind) and after three anxious weeks of waiting it arrived. A few listens later, I knew that The Decemberists and I were destined to become close. And looking back, just a few months on, that's exactly what happened: Castaways and Cutouts soundtracked my summer. It helped me move house; it kept me awake during a thousand mundane miles of motorway driving; it even impressed my girlfriend. The reason? Well, I guess it just kept getting better. And please bear in mind that it was pretty damn good to start with.

Devoted No Ripcord readers (and those who were especially bored this summer) may remember me heaping praise upon the broadening shoulders of Portland's The Decemberists and their superbly colourful debut, Castaways and Cutouts. The record had originally seen the light of day in 2002 courtesy of Hush Records, but it was the news of May 2003's higher profile split release (honours were shared between Hush and respected indie imprint Kill Rock Stars) that initially brought it to my attention.

After reading a few favourable reviews of Castaways, I became more immediately intrigued than I had any right to be; living in the UK, where you can't hear a band through even semi-conventional means until the NME has deemed them worthy of hyping up (i.e. they have expensive haircuts, hail from Australia, or are "here to save rock 'n' roll" - again), I was finding it exceedingly difficult to track down even a single note these guys had put down on record. Finally, my fifteenth Google search yielded a favourable result - a site where I could download an mp3 of July, July - and from that moment on there was no turning back. I requested a promotional copy of the album immediately (thoughts that I could and should have done this earlier crossed my mind) and after three anxious weeks of waiting it arrived. A few listens later, I knew that The Decemberists and I were destined to become close. And looking back, just a few months on, that's exactly what happened: Castaways and Cutouts soundtracked my summer. It helped me move house; it kept me awake during a thousand mundane miles of motorway driving; it even impressed my girlfriend. The reason? Well, I guess it just kept getting better. And please bear in mind that it was pretty damn good to start with.

Anyway, when I heard a few months back that The Decemberists had a new album in the can I practically imploded with joy. Did Colin Meloy and his merry gang of accomplices really have the balls to go one better and eclipse the glorious achievement of Castaways and Cutouts? Or (more likely, I assumed) were they about to drown in a sea of disappointment, half-baked ideas, and, God forbid, drum solos? As only time would tell, I cancelled all immediate plans and hit the play button with all the giddy excitement of an annoyingly hyperactive nephew at Christmas.

Yes, I know it was a rather long and meandering introduction but take my word for it: this is a scene worth setting. Her Majesty the Decemberists is a glorious triumph. The brilliant sound of a band taking their first steps to greatness. It's exceeded all of my expectations, soaring to the top of my end-of-year list in the process. And now I'm going to tell you exactly why The Decemberists deserve to become your new favourite band. So listen up.

It all starts with Shanty for the Arethusa, a dark yet beguiling tale about a crew of roguish pirates bound for South Australia (where "the natives are dark and nubile"). Musically, it's something of a departure for the band - the crashing minor chords and distinct rumbles are a world apart from say, the gentle instrumentation of Grace Cathedral Hill - but thematically it's hardly a surprise: Meloy pulled off a convincing lament from the perspective of a homesick French legionnaire last time round!

The anglophilic Elephant 6isms of Billy Liar are in stark contrast to the darker tones of our opener, but that's not to say they're unwelcome. Lyrically jam-packed full of malevolent twists ("Billy Liar's got his hands in pockets / he's staring over at the neighbours, knickers down"), yet laced with sugary sweet harmonies, this track could easily be the work of a more mischievous Kevin Barnes, the Of Montreal songwriter/leader/genius. Yes, that good.

Los Angeles, I'm Yours sees The Decemberists breaking more new ground with their most luxuriously produced track to date. Dominated by syncopated guitar rhythm and embellished with swirling string sections and understated Hammond organ, this track has single written all over it. The lyrics aren't half bad either, with Meloy churning out some truly bizarre couplets, presumably aided and abetted by a tattered old nineteenth century thesaurus. "How I abhor this place! / Its sweet and bitter taste / Has left me wretched, wretching on all fours" he concludes; one can only wonder what the L.A. tourist board make of it all.

The ensuing triptych of The Gymnast, High Above The Ground, The Bachelor and the Bride and Song for Myla Goldberg all succeed in maintaining the album's early momentum, before the excellent The Soldiering Life adds an amusing twist to that familiar story of comradeship in the trenches. But I won't spoil it for you. Next up comes the closest thing resembling a ballad on Her Majesty, the gorgeously bare Red Right Ankle. Quite what it's about I fear I'll never know, but it makes for a captivating listen nonetheless.

The Chimbley Sweep is another of Meloy's musically upbeat, yet lyrically bleak character pieces, this time concerning a lonely, unloved orphan and his tortured life on the streets. See? I told you it was bleak. Of course, such dramatic attempts at contrast have been attempted a million times before, but you'll have to take my word for it - Meloy really succeeds in nailing it here. Undoubtedly a highlight. The penultimate track, I Was Meant for the Stage, sees Meloy (arguably) eschewing his favoured approach of singing about other people, and serves as a bold 'I told you I'd make it' statement to his detractors. As he begs "Mother, please be proud / Father be forgiving / Even though you told me, 'Son, you'll never make a living'", the listener is offered a rare insight into the man behind this marvellous music. And what a treat it is.

The strangely quaint As I Rise provides Her Majesty with an odd and somewhat unexpected finale, but that's not to say it's a catastrophe - on someone else's album, it might even be a highlight. In fact, curiously (and perhaps intentionally) As I Rise works best as an introductory track to a repeat sitting of Her Majesty the Decemberists. Which is more convenient than you could ever really imagine.

So, I guess that concludes my lengthy lesson on why the Decemberists demand (and deserve) your immediate attention. For those who couldn't be doing with over a thousand words of unadulterated praise, here's the take home message: Her Majesty the Decemberists heralds the true arrival of Colin Meloy and his Decemberists. Please make it your duty to welcome them.