Friday, May 13, 2005


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 6, 2005

How best to describe the sound of The Decemberists?

Maybe something like “From all atop the parapets blow a multitude of coronets/Melodies rhapsodical and fair.”

I’m plagiarizing here (not me actually. My press secretary will take the fall.) It’s a line from the first song on The Decemberists’ new album Picaresque.

No there’s not really a lot of coronets on this album, but the sound of this Portland, Ore. band sounds like Robyn Hitchcock fronting Steeleye Span. In fact the album that Picaresque msot reminds me of is Steeley’s underrated 1977 album Storm Force 10, undoubtedly the British folk-rock band’s grittiest work in which songs by Bertold Brecht joined the traditional material Steeleye did so well.

This literate record is full of regal bombast, pomp and inspired pretentiousness.

Yes, I said “pretentiousness.” I realize that this has become a dirty word in rock ’n’ roll, where “keeping it real” is among the highest virtues.

But don’t knock pretentiousness. Sometimes a high dose of fantasy is good for the soul. And for you purists out there, I have some harsh news: Tom Waits isn’t really a bowery bum who plays piano in waterfront dives, most of the Beach Boys never surfed and the members of The Band weren’t really Civil War veterans.

When an album starts off proclaiming, “Here she comes on her palanquin/On the back of an elephant/On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk …” you know you’re in for a fantastic voyage through some unusual terrain.

That first song -- the one with the elephants and coronets and … palanquins (Look it up, I had to ) -- is “The Infanta.” It’s about the baby daughter of a Spanish king. Introduced with a screaming horn and drums that suggest an elephant stampede, the setting of the song is a grand parade.

There’s a king and his concubine, dukes and virgins. The narrator seems to be full of wonder at the spectacle, but there is tension just beneath it all. A baroness ponders her “barren-ness.” Who are the “luscious young girls of the Duke and Dutchess? And what’s this lake from which the Infanta’s cradle was pulled?

Picaresque is bursting with wild, sleazy sex. The heroes of “On the Bus Mall“ are gay prostitutes.

With a Morrissey-like melody, Meloy sings, “But here in the alleys, your spirits were rallied/As you learned quick to make a fast buck/in bathrooms and ballrooms, on dumpsters and heirlooms …”

“We Both Go Down Together” deals with a rock ‘ roll theme older than “Rag Doll,” “Down in the Boondocks.” “Patches” or “Hang On Sloopy“ -- romance between social un-equals.

But unlike the typical rich-boy/poor-girl sagas, in which all would be peachy except for uptight parents or “society,” Meloy‘s song deals with the inherent power issues in such relations. In fact, by the end of the song the affair sounds more like rape than romance.

“I found you, a tattoo’d tramp/A dirty daughter from the labor camp/I laid you down in the grass of a clearing/You wept, but your soul was willing.”

My favorite songs on Picaresque are long theatrical pieces. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is a tall tale of a young man seeking revenge against a gambling sailor who’d wrong his mother years ago. Mom’s final request to the lad was “Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole/and break his fingers to splinters …” The climax of the story takes place inside the belly of a whale.

With its minor-key accordion and one-two beat and weird waltz interlude, this nearly nine-minute piece would have fit in perfectly on Storm Force 10.

But best of all is “The Bagman’s Gambit,” which sounds as if it were ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel. Starting off with slowly strummed, stark guitar chords, a plain-clothes cop is shot on the steps of the Capitol, and we‘re plunged into the plot.

“Bagman” deals with a lowly government worker who sells unspecified secrets to an enemy spy -- in exchange for sex.

“And I recall that fall/I was working for the government/And in a bathroom stall off the national mall/How we kissed so sweetly!/How could I refuse a favor or two/And for a tryst in the greenery/I gave you documents and microfilm too.”

With its sad melody, and Phillip Glass-like string interlude (featuring guest Decemberist Petra Hayden), by the end of a song, a listener feels he’s a co-conspirator.

{NOTE: The rest of today's column was devoted to Acie Cargill, whose latest CDs I published prematurely here a couple of weeks ago.}

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