Review Summary: And we'll remember this when we are old and ancient, though the specifics might be vague.
The Decemberists wrote their own copy the second the accordion kicks in sixteen seconds into “Leslie Ann Levine”: the sea shanty indie band, eight seasons of Portlandia
condensed into audio form, Neutral Milk Hotel if they had chosen to write In the Schooner on the Sea
instead. Admittedly, most of this is fair to at least a certain extent (although the direct Mangum lifts are limited to one glancing Holocaust reference and a few bars of “Odalisque”). But this story belies the diverse talents of a band that was as comfortable singing about a loved one’s funeral and a quiet road trip as about bitter infant spectres and stranded French soldiers. Castaways and Cut-Outs
, the group’s debut, has for the most part aged extremely well – not as tacky or nautical as you probably remember, and more beautiful and meditative. Colin Meloy’s ear for melody and knack for turns of phrase (even if they are sometimes too clever by a half, or a whole, or a whole-and-a-half) come fully formed, and his voice varies from gentle to mournful to – of course – bleatingly raucous. The instrumentation is somehow both extravagant and economical, with North-Atlantic accordion gently coexisting with South-Californian pedal steel. The pop songs are tight, punchy, and catchy, characteristically embedding words like “camisole” and “bagatelles” into sing-along refrains, while the ballads are compelling and beautifully ornamented.
Sadly, this album has a few blemishes, and they are not easy to overlook. Worst by far is the loathsome “Cautionary Song,” a jarring and sickening sea shanty describing in detail the gang rape of a young mother. Whatever authenticity points the choice of subject matter might have given Meloy down at the docks, the song’s light-hearted tone has not aged well and from a tonal perspective is a deeply unpleasant interlude. From the start, the Decemberists were an extremely fidgety band – you get the sense that the Hammond organist reflexively stretches his fingers in preparation when Meloy begins an acoustic ballad. This emerges as an issue on “Odalisque” a messy first attempt at The Crane Wife
’s prog-folk classic “The Island.” But the best moments on the album come when the shanty percussion gets put away, the waistcoats are unbuttoned, and the music is allowed to gently crest like waves in a harbour – "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect", "Cocoon", and in particular the sublime closer “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade.” The latter song is transcendent, transitioning from a sweet and patient country ballad to an interlude coloured by subtle brushes of piano and shimmering crash cymbal before building to a cathartic call to arms of all outcasts: benchwarmers, library fine evaders, and presumably the types of people who listen to the Decemberists. In its afterglow it’s difficult to recollect any flaws with the nine songs that came before it.