An unseen beast trumpets mightily. There is a slight pause, then the drums approach, rolling across the sonic landscape. Picaresque, The Decemberists' densely-textured folk pop album, begins.
The Decemberists are a Portland, Oregon, collective of musicians who could teach a master class in the dusty categories of cautionary songs, war ballads, and sea shanties. Many of these genres have been out of fashion since the turn of the 20th century, but frontman Colin Meloy and his band have reinvigorated the forms with lush instrumentation and literary lyricism.
Picaresque is not the band's first album, but it is an excellent introduction to their musical versatility. The Infanta, our previously mentioned opening track, acts as a barrelling unstoppable royal parade becoming more grandiose as each second passes.
The album offers a variety of dynamics, tempos, and emotional range, tentpoling the gentler tunes with a few rip-roarers. Meloy's extended vocabulary is truly a main attraction. If you like what you hear, he has a charming series of chapter books for children.
16 Military Wives marks the band at their feistiest. Upbeat, yet vividly angry at modern foreign policy and related lack of insightful media coverage, protest songs have never sounded so fun. The song has a wonderful music video that borrows director Wes Anderson's aesthetics. It can be viewed below.
Finally we have the crowning achievement of the album in The Mariner's Revenge Song. Recorded in one take around a single microphone, the band creates a theatrical force in the telling of how one young man relentlessly pursued the scoundrel who used and abused his mother, until both men are trapped in the belly of a whale. A pulsing accordion drives the vengeful action to its inevitable grisly climax.
If you find yourself enjoying Picaresque, we have the band's follow-up album. The Crane Wife finds The Decemberists complementing their folk sound with a bit of prog-rock keyboard. The change puts their reviewer most in mind of In the Court of the Crimson King by -- surprise-- King Crimson.
The Decemberists' albums feel right at home in the library collection. They are catchy, cozy arrangements, perfect to accompany a cup of tea and a good read.