Music Reviews

Decemberists Picaresque

(Kill Rock Stars) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Don't look now, but the Decemberists are slowly evolving from a motley crew of salty dogs into a full-fledged rock band. The rhythms are tightening up, the intensity is kicked up a notch, and the songs, even the longer ones, are more focused and purposeful. Colin Meloy seems to be aware of the band moving towards a rigorous vitality, saying to his bandmates, "yeah, we're good, but we can be great; and what's more, we can be great on our own terms." That means that they can record an 18 minute epic on Celtic mythology called the Tain, released last year as an EP, and have it turn out to be the best thing they've ever done. Rocking harder than ever, yet not forsaking their lovable quirkiness, that record was extraordinary in its refusal to compromise while it steamrolled past its potential indulgences.

The Tain was an amazing work, and it will probably stand as a career highlight if Picaresque is any indication. Why? Because instead of taking some of their weaker yet still interesting ideas and melding them into a greater whole, here, as on their other albums, they get fleshed out to song length. That's ok, because most of what they come up with is pretty darn good, and it's probably asking too much to come up with 45 minutes as vital as every one of The Tain's 18.

But the experience of recording The Tain has clearly changed the band for the better. I got my first glimpse of this seeing them play live this past fall. They previewed Infanta and The Sporting Life, two tracks that showcase the band's newfound cohesion and chops. Both songs are built around driving beats and are about as densely layered instrumentally as the Decemberists get. Are these the same guys that ran through Billy Liar with more jaunt than jive? I can see some diehards listening to Picaresque and grumbling that Meloy has sold out and should return to the Neutral Milk Hotel inspired goofball sloppiness that put them on the map. But even Jeff Magnum couldn't be Jeff Magnum for too long and after all, the Decemberists showed they could handle rocking out in full band form as early as July, July on their first album.

Still, there is plenty for the purists to love, as we find the usual assortment of time-out-of-joint tales and sea shanty odes that are Meloy's specialty. Espionage demonstrates their comfort with long forms as it relates a story of star-crossed love between a bureaucrat and a cold war spy, complete with documents, microfilm and embassies and a brief instrumental section that evokes the Philip Glass score for an Errol Morris film. The Bus Mall hearkens back to The Bachelor and the Bride in its free-flowing interplay between acoustic and electric guitars. Meloy's bizarre elocution is on display as well, pronouncing the word "bones" in a way that would get a few laughs if delivered by Inspector Clouseau. Elsewhere, the present makes a brief appearance in 16 by 32, taking on the current war(s) and the pundits who sit by and say nothing but "la di da di da". But don't fret too much over this cold glass of reality poured on your head, as Colin spends most of his time in alternate universes and behind inventive guises.

So, a tighter, stronger Decemberists release their best full length yet. If Meloy can find a way to consistently relate his nautical narratives to universal, present day concerns, the band will churn out classics like the sea swallows ships.