The Decemberists- "Picaresque"
Corey Fry/ Music Review
Perhaps if they weren't so darn theatrical, they'd be the next R.E.M. or something (and singer Colin Meloy pulls his best Michael Stipe in a couple of new songs), but they simply must reinforce the campy elements of their persona like a smiling clown with a painted frown. Heck, the only time the past two weeks anyone has bothered to call my radio show was when I played "The Sporting Life" or "We Both Go Down Together," two of the marvelous tracks from the equally stupendous album, wanting to know who was that band.
The Decemberists thrive on simple melody, intriguing, beguiling tales of periodical costume dramas, and more high end vocab words than you can shake a thesaurus at-Meloy is the best thing to happen to dictionary salesmen since tomato was spelled with an "e." The secret weapon is still the accordion, a highly useful, extremely practical instrument that is possibly the most underrated instrument out there (if there is such a thing).
They kick things off with a sort of "coming to Africa" tale about an infant princess (or more accurately, as the song is titled, an "Infanta") being paraded about on elephants through crowds of worshipers as she dreams of "quiet streams." A high horn calls attention, immediately followed by locomotion-like attack drums before Meloy breaks in with his clean, fey proclamation: "here she comes!"
Curiously, they take us back home on this album, with the middle section set of songs- "The Sporting Life," "The Bagman's Gambit," "16 Military Wives," and "On the Bus Mall"- reading like a broad swath of various contemporary American issues. "The Sporting Life" takes a jumpy, punchy beat to the story of a failed athlete, fallen to the ground, looking at his coach, father, and girlfriend as they express, quite clearly, their disappointment. "The Bagman's Gambit" is all cloak and dagger murder mystery romance, the object of his affection a spy working against the government. It begins simply enough, with nothing but acoustic guitar, but grows and grows to a ravishing crescendo.
"16 Military Wives" is similar in style to "Sporting Life," but is the most political song by the band, with Meloy taking it to the military, celebrities, academia, and everything else involved with the hypocrisy of war (the "anchor person on TV goes La di da di da duh diddy diddy dah").
Perhaps his most interesting and comical yarn this time is the "Bus Mall," a sensitive tale of young runaway male prostitutes, laughing off "quick tricks" and "pocket[ing] pills away." As ever, Meloy brings a perspective to what would otherwise be derisive and mocking; one such boy leaves without leaving a note for his "grieving sweet mother/while your brother was so cruel."
The two best songs, however, are "We Both Go Down Together," a Romeo and Juliet-esque tragedy of forbidden and suicidal lovers, and "The Mariner's Revenge Song," a nine-minute tale of, well, a mariner enacting revenge. Play it back to back with "Shanty for the Arethusa" from Her Majesty the Decemberists, and you'll have the ultimate coupling of sea-faring epic montages. If you need a perfect introduction to the band or even the world of indie rock, start with this one.