Ah, the Decemberists. Colin Meloy is a decent chap, if you ask me, and his brilliance knows no boundaries in this, their 2nd album, Castaways and Cut-outs.
The members consist of:
the aformentioned Meloy, (singer, writer)
Jenny Conlee (keyboard,accordian, voxs)
Chris Funk (guitar, among other things)
John Moen (drums)
Nate Query (Bass)
Petra Haden (violin)
I will refrain from making any sort of comparison to Neutral Milk Hotel in this review. Why? Because it has been done before, and I don't feel like it.
And besides, I don't entirely see eye to eye with said reviewers who do all they can to convince us that the Decemberists are so completely reminiscent of NMH.
That, in fact, is clearly stated in the reviewee, Castaways and Cut-outs. An album for the misfitted, if I ever did hear one.
The album kicks off with a melancholy ballad, Meloy crooning quite bone-chilling lyrics:
"My name is Leslie Anne Levine
My mother birthed me down a dry ravine
My mother birthed me far too soon
Born at nine and dead at noon"
With a simple guitar rift and soft accordian accompaniment, this song sets the mood for the entire album. A song sung by a tortured ghost child, and I'll be damned if it isn't the best one I've ever heard.
Following is the bittersweet dream, "Here I dreamt I was an Architect"
Herein lies one of my favorite lyrics ever sung in a decemberists song,
"And just to lay with you
there's nothing that I wouldn't do,
save lay my rifle down"
Such words cannot be reviewed much further. So I won't.
And by this time during your first listen of this album, I'm sure you were thinking, "Dear god, this is going to be a pretty depressing album, isn't it?"
Well, you're right. But not yet.
Because third on the album is the break from all that sad illusion and reminiscing wraith. It is "July, July!" Perhaps the album's only truly joyful song. I believe the song is a vague outline and truly relateable feeling of nostalgia, even if you didn't have a "crooked French-Canadian" for an uncle.
It is summed up best in the last verse:
"And we'll remember this when we are old and ancient
though the specifics might be vague
and I'll say your camisole was a sprightly light magenta
when, in fact, it was a nappy blue-ish gray"
Ending with the truly delightful chorus of
"July! July! July!
Never seemed so strange"
At the end of this song, you're almost feeling TOO happy. Not to worry, "A Cautionary Song" is the best remedy for any sort of joy.
Though it is sung in a slightly humorous tone along with an eerie accordian, A Cautionary Song, is all about the prostitutal way your mother pays the bills. Here lies Meloy's special talent for translating the exact scene in his head, to yours. So I'll spare you my description of the song, and let you see for yourself:
"There's a place your mother goes when everybody else is soundly sleeping
through the lights of beacon street
and if you listen you can hear her weeping,
'cause the gentlemen are calling
and the snow is softly falling
on her petticoats.
And she's standing in the harbour
and she's waiting for the sailors in the jolly boat
see how they approach"
You get the picture instantly, don't you?
He concludes on a light-hearted note:
"So be kind to your mother
Though she may seem an awful bother
And the next time she tries to feed you collared greens
Remember what she does when you're asleep"
I was kidding about the whole light-hearted thing...
Anyway, next up after that elate-able ballad comes "Odalisque".
This song proudly carrying on the topic of prostitution, does so with even a bit more pity. A girl, presumably a concubine as the song title suggests, is running away with her child. Ready to jump off a fire escape to relieve herself, Meloy comes in with comforting words of :
"And when they find you, Odalisque
They will rend you terribly
Stitch from stitch 'till all
your linen limbs will fall"
Then mirrors the thoughts of her persuers:
"And what do we do
with 10 dirty Jews
a thirty-ought full of rock salt
and a warm afternoon? What do we do?"
Such war-ish, hostile, and confused themes carry on into the next, and quite lengthy song, "Cocoon"
"Here we lie waiting for something to startle
To shake us from gravity's pull
And so the sleeping hours are through
What can we do?"
You see the similar theme, carrying on again, and it'll be coming up in the future again. But this is a beautiful song and I highly recommend it.
"Grace Cathedral Hill" isn't exactly a jumping-for-joy song, but is slightly lighter than its predecessors. It's a love song of sorts, but the new year isn't a time for happiness as the narrator's lover is ill and all he can do is show her the city on a motorbike. He rebukes the bitterness of the world and sings:
"And the world may belong for you
But it'll never belong to you
And on a motorbike
When all the city lights
blind your eyes tonight
Are you feeling better now?"
And again as we see a morphing of themes, here comes "Legionnaire's Lament". Sung in a very upbeat fashion, the lyrics are anything but.
From what I gather, it is about a French soldier in the Sahara, missing his homeland and his girl. The brilliant historical references and imagery in this song are what the Decemberists do best.
"Medicating in the sun
Pinch doses of laudanum
Longing for the old fecundity
Of my homeland
Curses to this mirage!
A bottle of ancient Shiraz
A smattering of distant applause
Is ringing in my poor ears"
The last song before the big finale is "Clementine". A beautiful song of two poor lovers dreaming of their future of being married and having a home, despite being discouraged by parents and such.
"Tell your mom to marry us
A candle to carry us
With cans on our bicycle fenders
So sweet and hilarious
And we'll find us a home
Built of packaging foam
That will be there 'til after we die"
I absolutely love this verse because it perfectly and humorously portrays a sort of longing we all may have, should we ever be part of poverty-stricken love affair.
...Alright, we have reached THE SONG. My favorite Decemberists song of all time.
"California One/ Youth and Beauty Brigade" sums up all of the albums' melancholy, depression, (scarce) happiness, misfits, outcasts and the like.
The first half, "California One" is a tribute to the beauty of being in love (and hey, why not in California?)
"And the road a-winding goes
From Golden Gate to roaring cliff-side
And the light is softly low as our hearts
Become sweetly untied
Beneath the sun of California one"
After this beautiful peice, the song slowly segways into "Youth and Beauty Brigade" while the voice of a girl quietly whispers,
"I've heard of ghosts- good ghosts who wander the battlefields at night, guiding soldiers out of danger. If I was such a ghost, I would stay so close to you, you could feel my breath on your cheek"
To which Meloy sings the repeated theme:
"Annabell lies, sleeps with quiet eyes
On this sea-drift sun
What can you do?
And if I said, "Oh it's in your head
On this sea-drift sun"
What can you do? "
And at last to the the brilliant and essential Youth and Beauty Brigade we hear:
"We're calling all bedwetters and ambulance chasers
Poor picker-pockets, bring 'em in
Come join the Youth and Beauty Brigade
We're lining up the light-loafere'd
And the bored bench warmers
Castaways and cutouts, fill it up
Come join the Youth and Beauty Brigade
Nothing will stand in our way
I figured I had paid my debt to society
By paying my overdue fines
At the Multnoma County Library
At the library they said, "Son, go join up
Go join the Youth and Beauty Brigade"
And there you have it. The epitome of one of the Decemberists' best albums, and my personal favorite.
All I can say is that the Decemberists are an ingenious band. If you are a new listener, or one who has never quite fancied the way that the Decemberists songs are filled with elaborate and historical ventures, I suggest you give it another go because they truly are brilliant.
Now, I realise my sarcastic descriptions hardly does this album justice, but I think it better to have some review than none at all.
Feel free to leave your well-appreciated criticism.