Just about the time I find myself telling someone that I don't listen to much of what would be considered standard rock and roll music, along come the Decemberists and blow all that out of the water. With bits of folk, pop, rock and country seeping through, they perform songs mostly about yesteryear, but guide it all with some of the freshest music that I've heard lately. Swinging back and forth from melancholy to giddy happiness, lead man Colin Meloy spins some of the best lyrical tales this side of Nick Cave. Prostitutes, abandoned children, and soldiers of war all have a place in the stories that spill out on the disc, and in an age of disposable 'come hither' facades, it's a refreshing listen.
Musically, the group isn't technically doing anything that nobody else has done, but as always it's the quality of the craft that makes the big difference. Sounding a bit like a more poppy Neutral Milk Hotel (and Meloy's vocals even draw a bit of comparison to Jeff Magnum) crossed with the lush pop of groups like World Party, The Decemberists take the standard guitar/drums lineup and fill it out with the thick twang of an upright bass, Hammond organ, Rhodes and regular piano, pedal steel, accordian, and theremin.
As mentioned before, though, it's the vocals and lyrics of Meloy that provide the glue that sticks things together. As the voice of the ghost of an abandoned child, "Leslie Ann Levine" starts out the disc on a sort of down note, but with backing instrumentation the track sounds _almost_ uplifting. "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" turns a love song on it's head by framing it in a series of elaborate dreamscapes, while "July, July!" cranks things up to more of a fun level musically, with a singalong chorus and hummable melodies (although the verse lyrics still flirt with darker themes).
In the most extreme example of the group turning creepily dark lyrics into a catchy track, look no further than "A Cautionary Tale" (which reminds me of tracks on The Denver Gentlemen's Introducing) Lurching along with a twisted-carny section of instrumenation, Melory sings the tale of a mother forced into prostitution (think Bess in Breaking The Waves-style bad situations) to feed the kids. It's one of those songs you find yourself singing along with until the levity of the words makes you wonder what you're doing.
With a dynamic tempo change about halfway through, "Odalisque" arrives as one of the best tracks on the release about halfway through. It will most likely be the first and last time you'll ever find yourself singing along with the line "Raised on pradies, peanut shells and dirt / in the railroad cul-de-sac" (among others). Such is the simple (yet not quite so) beauty of this release. Musically, it's as tight as a debut full-length album can be, and lyrically it takes you on interesting little journeys about forgotten people and what goes on behind closed doors. As the title suggests, it's an album that's inhabited by oddities, but I've always identified with them more than bubble-gum sheen anyway. They can blare the latest hot hits this summer, but I'll have more fun singing "And I'll play the clarinet, use clamshells for castanets / We play with our bags on our shoulders, my sweet lady lioness." Amen.