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Decemberists release best album yet

Kerry O'Connor | Thursday, March 31, 2005

If rock ‘n’ roll had existed in pre-revolutionary France, it would have sounded like this. The Decemberists’ new album brings a new layer of maturity to its storytelling, leaving accessible accounts of love and growth behind for theatrical tales of fiction told with a historical backdrop.Singer/songwriter Colin Meloy formed The Decemberists in Portland four years ago, creating a literary indie-pop quintet that rose quickly to critical acclaim. The title of the band’s newest album, “Picaresque” – a rare adjective relating to adventure stories starring roguish antiheroes – gives an indication of the band’s quirky, obscure and intelligent nature.The songs on the Decemberists’ third full-length are tinged with a wisdom and sophistication rarely found in rock albums. The songs seem urgent, pressing and captivating. Colin Meloy captures one with his voice, forcing one to listen, and he does not disappoint. However, The Decemberists is not to be confused with other bands with a similar singer-songwriter formula. This album is one that would remain intriguing even if there were no lyrics at all. There are an incredible number of instruments mixed into each track – guitars, violins, accordions and several other instruments most musicians do not even know exist. The music drives Meloy’s melodies down paths not visited on previous Decemberists records.The album begins with “La Infanta,” a crashing, dark, pulsating song about a pirate ship that sets a picturesque scene for the rest of the album. The songs are eclectic – each experiments with a different genre. As is evident on “We Both Go Down Together,” Meloy could write a catchy pop song if he liked, and this is the closest thing offered. It sounds like a sincere love song but is actually written about a couple from different social classes who jump from a cliff when they realize they cannot love each other in life.The Decemberists hit perfection several times on the album, though it has its share of excesses. “Bagman’s Gambit” is a seven-minute epic, starting with an acoustic guitar before crashing into full swing. The song climaxes minutes later with a cacophonous instrumental meltdown that brings the song full circle with an acoustic finish. It is incredibly alluring and offers glimpses of musical genius, but feels too ambitious at some points.Furthermore, some of the songs feel like Meloy tried to squeeze one too many verses in – a song that sounds like heaven in the first minute might seem torturous by the fifth or sixth. Such is the case with the nine-minute “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which offers an interesting aesthetic but sounds too much like it belongs on a soundtrack to a musical. However, preceded by the album’s masterpiece “On The Bus Mall,” it is easy to overlook the small misstep.The Decemberists are known for the precious, immediately personal story-songs on its first two albums (see “California One”), but with “Picaresque” it is evident the band has set upon something more universal, and with this comes an increased level of complexity to cope with. This is not to say the songs are not incredibly appealing – it is only a matter of which Decemberists’ style is preferred. “Picaresque” is the Decemberists in perfect stride, evolving somewhat predictably but ultimately agreeably. If this is not the Decemberists’ masterpiece, it is awfully close.