1. Leslie Anne Levine (4:12)
2. Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect (4:31)
3. July, July! (2:51)
4. A Cautionary Song (3:08)
5. Odalisque (5:20)
6. Cocoon (6:48)
7. Grace Cathedral Hill (4:28)
8. The Legionnaire’s Lament (4:44)
9. Clementine (4:07)
10.California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade (9:50)
Colin Meloy – lead vocals, guitars, percussion
Chris Funk – guitars, pedal steel, theremin
Jenny Conlee – Hammond organ, Rhodes piano, regular piano, accordion
Nate Query – upright bass
Ezra Holbrook – drums, percussion, backing vocals
Many of those people who (sometimes in spite of themselves) were won over by The Decemberists’ award-winning 2009 release, the sumptuous rock opera The Hazards of Love, will certainly have felt the impulse to delve into the Portland band’s back catalogue, and thus come across their debut, Castaways and Cutouts. Though the specialized press has often placed the band under the ‘progressive rock’ umbrella (as was definitely the case with the first article I read about them, in the autumn of 2006), true-blue prog fans are sharply divided about this issue. While the more conservative set often refuse to acknowledge anything not sounding like the Seventies bands, the more open-minded fans have equally often embraced the band as a firm favourite.
As is the case of all Decemberists releases but The Hazards of Love (and possibly their 2004 EP, The Tain), Castaways and Cutouts is an effort that can only in part be called progressive. In fact, a good proportion of the songs follow in the footsteps of the great American folk tradition, influenced by its European counterpart, yet at the same time noticeably different. It is nevertheless an album that prog fans can definitely find appealing (unless they are of a seriously close-minded disposition), and even features a couple of tracks that might be tagged as ‘epics’. Based on a series of vignettes often focused on the plight of the less fortunate members of society (as the title implies), handled in terms that range from the downright grotesque to the deeply compassionate, the album undeniably possesses a powerful lyrical impact – which has become a constant of the band’s output, making very effective use of Colin Meloy’s fertile, erudite imagination and remarkable skill as a wordsmith.
Meloy’s stories, deeply rooted in the folklore of both the Old and the New World, are not meant to leave the listener cold, even resorting to shock tactics in their stark description of seedy milieus and events. Indeed, some of the situations depicted on Castaways and Cutouts are not for the faint-hearted, even without resorting to excessively graphic detail. Luckily, not all is not doom and gloom on this album. Meloy approaches his subject matter, no matter how sordid or depressing, from a perspective of poetic realism, presenting the events with a compassionate stance, avoiding the almost masochistic wallowing in misery that, for instance, seems to be almost the rule for progressive metal bands. His voice, with its somewhat nasal twang and precise enunciation, may be an acquired taste for some, but is also quite perfect for the sort of storytelling displayed on the album.
I have always been impressed by The Decemberists’ ability to produce memorable opening tracks – in my view, one of the real strengths of a band in compositional terms – and “Leslie Ann Levine” is no exception. A hard-hitting account of suicide and stillbirth, told from the point of view of a dead baby, it is the follow-up to “We All Go Down Together” (featured on Picaresque, the band’s third studio release), which, however, does not pack the same punch, either musically or lyrically. While its folksy, accordion-driven tune, with its vague French flavour, is only mildly wistful, the lyrics drip with sadness and regret. Some of the songs are straight-up acoustic folk numbers, where the music seems to take a back seat, and as such might appear too ‘simple’ to those craving the complexity (whether authentic or fake) of ‘mainstream’ progressive rock. The profoundly disturbing, dirge-like “A Cautionary Song” (a tale of prostitution motivated by abject poverty), and the wistfully romantic love songs “Grace Cathedral Hill” and “Clementine” belong to this group, where the minimalistic musical accompaniment allows the narrative component to emerge, driven along by Meloy’s plaintive, nostalgia-filled vocal style.
On the other hand, the upbeat “July! July!”, whose deceptively optimistic mood conceals another disquieting tale of violent death, and the haunting dreamscapes of “I Dreamed I Was an Architect” display a catchier, more listener-friendly approach, with memorable choruses and a richer instrumental background. The aptly-titled “Cocoon”, a dreamy, almost slow-motion number inspired by the science fiction of the late Kurt Vonnegut, feels almost reassuring in the midst of so much turmoil; while “The Legionnaire’s Lament” is an infectious divertissement sporting some of the wackiest rhymes this side of Lewis Carroll. That leaves the two aforementioned epics, though in terms of running time only album closer “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” might be described as such. However, the mesmerizing, Hammond-drenched strains of “Odalisque” – another pitch-black, convoluted tale of sexual perversion, rape and (probably) infanticide – are such a towering achievement as to give the impression of a much longer song. “California One”, on the other hand, celebrates the beauty of nature and youth with a deep vein of nostalgia for a bygone past – its almost 11 minutes, driven by piano, pedal-steel guitar and touches of theremin, evoking a distinct Sixties West Coast feel.
An outstanding debut album, lavishly packaged in a booklet graced by the quirky illustrations of Carson Ellis (Colin Meloy’s then-girlfriend, now his wife, and a professional graphic artist), Castaways and Cutouts is highly recommended to those who are constantly seeking for both lyrical challenges and music that manages to be catchy and thought-provoking at the same time. Though here they will not find the myriad complexities and head-spinning changes of canonical progressive rock, open-minded (and curious) prog fans could do much worse than get acquainted with the wild and wonderful world of Colin Meloy and The Decemberists.