(Author’s note: This is the first in a new series we’re enacting at the NorthWest Music Scene, Retrospective Reviews, where we’ll be looking at entire full-length discographies from northwest artists one album at a time, whilst noting artistic evolution, artistic regression, musical sea changes, etc. We’re starting things out with the Decemberists, going through all six of their LPs, from Castaways and Cutouts to 2011’s The King Is Dead.)
Many popular musical acts throughout history can attribute their success to being a product of their time, building their sound and image based upon what’s popular in the moment. For instance, in the 1980s, the cool thing was styling your hair by firing hair spray at it out of cannon whilst dressing like Bret Michaels’ handicapped grandson, which is how groups like Ratt and Great White managed to garner acclaim in their day, however briefly.
With that said, there are a lot of groups that exist outside of modern trends, or really trends from any day, and a lot of the time the public at large really doesn’t know what to do with them, because their sound is unfamiliar and somewhat alienating, restricting their fame and success to the ever-accepting* indie music scene. Today, I’d like to explore one such act by bringing you back to the year 2003, when five very dorky, yet strikingly-original musicians captured the hearts of the indie scene, where they would persist in their well-deserved glory to this very day. They were known as the Decemberists.
The Decemberists are an indie folk rock group from Portland, Oregon that is widely regarded as one of the defining indie bands to break out of the Rose City, with an instantly-recognisable indie folk flavour that drew inspiration from chamber music and shanty 1800s folk music of all things. Originally released in 2002, Castaways and Cutouts marks the first full-length release by the band, though it didn’t make waves until its reissue the following year in 2003, a year before indie rock really broke out into the mainstream with The Killers and Modest Mouse. I was only four when this record originally dropped, so I wasn’t alerted to its presence until many years later; the only record I was really spinning at the time was the “We Just Got a Letter” song from Blue’s Clues.
While there was certainly no shortage of indie folk at the time thanks to groups like Bright Eyes, the Microphones and the Mountain Goats, the group’s debut 50-minute oeuvre stood out as something different and exciting, thanks to a one-of-a-kind vocalist and lyricist, frontman Colin Meloy. Meloy still stands out to me as one of the most well-versed and realised lyricists I’ve ever heard, with liberal use of old-timey words and vivid symbolism and imagery. From the morbid and grimdark first-person story of a stillborn infant’s three-hour life on the opener “Leslie Anne Levine” to the depressive story of a narrator’s lost love on “Grace Cathedral Hill”, the songwriting on this record is nothing short of excellent, and what drives it all home is Colin’s unorthodox and rather nasally vocals that were absolutely made for this kind of music.
From a musical standpoint, Castaways and Cutouts is heavy on layered instrumentation, with their main driving point unsurprisingly being acoustic guitar, but with a myriad of other instruments as well, including accordion, Theremin, Hammond organ, piano, and very occasional mallet percussion, all of which are utilized convincingly, and don’t just feel like gimmicks to add to the unconventional factor. There’s a nice Theremin lead in the closer “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade”, as well as nice driving piano on the aforesaid “Grace Cathedral Hill”. All of these different instruments playing in unison help to make the Decemberists’ dynamic feel like a full band, and not just the Colin Meloy Variety Hour, which it could’ve easily fallen into.
From the very first moment the indie music scene caught wind of Castaways and Cutouts, the Decemberists were met with comparison after comparison to Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece In the Aeroplane over the Sea, and to be fair, these comparisons aren’t just because both are unconventional indie folk albums. The two records share a lot of similarities instrumentally, lyrically and vocally. Colin Meloy and Jeff Mangum both have singing voices that, despite sounding somewhat similar, sound like no other singers out there, both bands favour acoustic guitars and unconventional instruments as musical motifs, and both are masters at imagery and conveying mood and tone through their lyricism. Even certain songs on Castaways sound a lot like ones off of Aeroplane instrumentally, such as “Odalisque” sounding similar to “Oh Comely”, with its crestfallen, yet powerfully-strummed acoustic guitar and the sentimental and saddened vocal delivery.
With that said, however, just because they share some similarities, that doesn’t mean that Castaways and Cutouts should be dismissed as In the Aeroplane over the Sea-lite, because I find it stands up on its own without having to bring it up in every paragraph in a review (looking at you, Pitchfork). Whereas Jeff Mangum on Aeroplane gives off the air of a highly-depressed and somewhat deranged musician belting out every different emotion and bizarre image that comes into his head as soon as he thinks them, Colin Meloy seems to be more like a highly-skilled lyrical painter, meticulously conjuring up a vivid and beautiful sight and backing it up with carefully-considered symbolism and unique scenarios to envelop us in, perfectly drawing the line between someone telling you a story and experiencing said story firsthand. Or to put that in a far less pretentious way, Colin Meloy’s lyrics get my rocks off.
The use of symbolism on this record shines brightest on the second track, “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect”. Songs about failed relationships and the mixed emotions that come from them aren’t anything new, but the way these emotions are conveyed through imagery such as the boyfriend being a soldier in Birkenau, fighting to protect her even if she may feel safe on her own, and their broken relationship being akin to an unevenly-built structure, and when it inevitably fell apart, they were both free to go. As the track unfolds, we get a set of lyrics that possibly implies infidelity, paedophilia and walking out on your spouse on the part of the narrator, and all of these events are tied together with a catchy chorus posthumously looking back on the relationship and ultimately determining that maybe it was better to turn that way.
One thing I can say about Castaways and Cutouts is that it’s one of the most varied indie rock records I’ve ever heard. A lot of albums in this genre will just feature acoustic guitar and piano, but the Decemberists really went the extra mile in fleshing out different ideas through their debut’s 50-minute runtime. A song like “Clementine” is a somewhat-simple stripped-down acoustic guitar ballad that sounds like it was intended to be a wedding song, while “A Cautionary Song” sounds like it’s trying to emulate the feel of shanty sea-dog-esque folk music circa the mid-1800s. This sea-dog style returns on “The Legionnaire’s Lament”, in my opinion the weakest track on the album, but it only appears on these two tracks, to make way for their signature highly-literate folk rock pieces.
The closer on this record is the longest and arguably best on the album, the two-part “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade”. This is by far the mellowest song on Castaways, and it has an infectiously lush feeling to it. While instrumentally it isn’t that different from the opening track, the complete tempo difference, combined with Meloy’s smooth vocal delivery, helps this song stand apart, and it’s pretty much exactly what I’d classify as a “summer jam”. It’s the kind of song you listen to whilst out on your roof, staring up at the night sky. It isn’t an epic climactic finisher by any means, but overwhelming bombast has never been what makes the Decemberists so special.
12 years later, and I’d say Castaways and Cutouts still holds up, and it’s still well-worth listening to today. It isn’t free of weak tracks, but there have been few albums that nail and balance tone, lyricism, imagery, variety and catchiness down pat quite like Castaways does. If you’ve never heard this record before, even if you’re not a particular fan of indie folk rock, I highly recommend you check it out.
After this album, the Decemberists went in an even more bold and ambitious direction with their music, going more baroque, ostentatious, and somehow even more their own. Join me next time when I take a look at their 2003 sophomore release, Her Majesty the Decemberists.