If Jeff Mangum had never been born, Colin Meloy could have assumed Jeff Mangum's current status as indie rock's consummate pop songwriter freak. Which, of course, would mean some other wild-eyed kid from Montana would have had to be Colin Meloy. The Real Meloy, in this Trading Places-themed Twilight Zone, would have filled in for Mangum's nasal warble and given the world the sweet gift of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea with his band Neutral Milk Hotel, while New Guy would front a band named, say, The Decemberists, who would shamelessly mine the sparkly folk-fuzz (sans-fuzz) of that most lauded of Elephant 6 bands. The Decemberists would be a tad poppier, and maybe a tad sweeter than their key influence, but fronted by a voice so close to Mangum's that few could tell the difference. Some say this may even have actually happened. Some say it's happening right now.
Such a mix-up is understandable (even if it may seem quite the opposite on paper): The Decemberists stick to the same kind of heavy acoustic folk-rock and freakish lyrical balladry that fueled Neutral Milk Hotel's rise to power. Fortunately, their music also possesses enough unique twists to distinguish it from simple mimicry. The most obvious is the band's often baroque instrumentation, which generally makes for more elaborate arrangements than those of their stylistic forbearer. Hammond organ and subtle theremin flesh out the mix, each adding an anachronistic spin on the otherwise quaint jangle of strings and guitars hearkening to some dusty, distant past. Melodic organ riffs, meanwhile, slightly warp the old-time illusion of the music-- the better to compliment the absurd, rag-tag world at the center of this band's dreamy fictionalizations.
The Decemberists' is a land of ghosts and petticoats, ''crooked French-Canadians''; gut-shot while running gin, bedwetters and gentlemen suitors, abandoned wastrels and pickpockets. It's also a realm of bizarre historical dreamscapes and snazzy wordplay: ''And just to lie with you/ There's nothing that I wouldn't do/ Save lay my rifle down,'' sings Meloy in the bittersweet hallucination ''Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect''. Time and again, these unhappy tales and fantastic allegories ring out over strangely soothing, rolling folk that seldom breaks from a dense, melancholy haze.
Only once does Castaways and Cutouts fully escape the hypnotic pull of its darkling bedtime stories ''July, July!'' may be the album's only genuinely happy moment, decked out in lush harmonies and fly-away choruses that clip their wings just shy of soaring towards anything too grand. And the band actually makes this singular elated moment stick by remaining reasonably understated-- despite the temptation there must have been to launch into a full-on celebration in the midst of such omnipresent malaise, the song is content to simply smile, permeating the surrounding bleakness with a subtle aura of peaceful contentment.
The constant sobriety of the rest of these tracks does wear thin now and then-- the inclusion of another similarly uplifting tune might have made the record somewhat more effective-- but the somber fables of Castaways and Cutouts remain compelling nonetheless. The Decemberists rarely put forth individually gripping songs, yet somehow, the result is a remarkable whole, an autonomous unit. From the opening cry of, ''My name is Leslie Anne Levine/ My mother birthed me down a dry ravine,'' to the album's exhausting conclusion, the fever never breaks. So, if Jeff Mangum really is on permanent vacation, we're going to need a successor. Few bands seem as worthy of inheriting his twisted empire as The Decemberists. --Pitchfork
...The palpable feeling of repression of the Russian revolutionary Decembrists has been exhumed, oddly enough, by the Portland, Oregon band of the same name on their debut full length, Casta --All Music Guide
...The palpable feeling of repression of the Russian revolutionary Decembrists has been exhumed, oddly enough, by the Portland, Oregon band of the same name on their debut full length, Castaways and Cutouts...
The demystifing of these tales reveals the beauty of studied songwriting; a love for the musty things of life; and a record that will welcome the settling dust of time. The Russian Decemberists are a model for the ''bored bench-warmers.'' I can hear them yelling: ''Nothing will stand in our way.'' --Stylus Magazine
Colin Meloy's dynamic vocals lead the way on Castaways and Cutouts, the impressive 2003 effort by Portland, OR, quintet the Decemberists. Throughout the disc, Meloy's songs tell tales of life's castaways, including Spanish gypsies and Turkish prostitutes, painting glorious pictures with supposedly suspicious characters. After opening the album with two subdued tracks, ''July, July!'' is a lively anthem, setting a gloriously quirky pace for the rest of the disc. ''A Cautionary Song'' centers around Jenny Conlee's accordion, as acoustic guitar swirls around Meloy's narrative. ''Odalisque'' is quite possibly the highlight of the album, carrying the listener through peaks and valleys led by Conlee's juiced-up organ and Meloy's grittiest vocals of the disc. ''Cocoon'' calms the mood back down, with gentle piano and guitar serving as the song's backbone. On ''The Legionnaire's Lament,'' the band's effortless folk is at its best, with choppy guitars and enchanting organ swirling behind Meloy's relentlessly thrilling storytelling. Yet again, the disc continues a rise-and-fall approach as the restrained and engaging ''Clementine'' is next, followed by the beautiful ''California One,'' which features some jaw-dropping upright bass by Nate Query. That song makes a seamless transition into the closer, ''Youth and Beauty Brigade,'' a carefully crafted epic full of witticisms and reserved style. Meloy's vocals are their most engaging by now, and while the last track might not be the standout song of the disc, it's perfectly positioned on the disc for maximum effect. The song's rising intensity and lyrical imagery add up for a stunning finish, leaving the listener clamoring for more, as all great albums do. Chris Funk adds guitar and theremin, and drummer Ezra Holbrook rounds out the five-piece band. --All Music Guide