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Castaways and Cutouts Original recording reissued

4.5 out of 5 stars 72 customer reviews

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Audio CD, Original recording reissued, May 6, 2003
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

As its title would suggest, Castaways and Cutouts is a record populated with an eclectic array of unlikely characters in various states of abandonment and revelry. While the likes of Spanish gypsies, infant specters, and Turkish prostitutes are not common elements to be found within modern pop music, these figures find ample footing within the songcraft of Mr. Meloy, supported comfortably by the band's lush and orchestral instrumentation. Recorded over a two month period in a warehouse in Portland, Oregon's Industrial Southeast, the record swims gracefully between heart-rending, deftly arranged pop and scrappy off-the-cuff dirge.


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

Track Listings

Disc: 1

  1. Leslie Anne Levine
  2. Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect
  3. July, July!
  4. A Cautionary Song
  5. Odalisque
  6. Cocoon
  7. Grace Cathedral Hill
  8. The Legionnaire's Lament
  9. Clementine
  10. California One
  11. Youth and Beauty Brigade

Product Details

  • Audio CD (May 6, 2003)
  • Original Release Date: 2002
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Format: Original recording reissued
  • Label: Kill Rock Stars
  • ASIN: B00008XS4D
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,722 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By carl cuchetti on June 2, 2004
Format: Audio CD
have you ever heard a beautiful old celtic song, where upon listening closely to the lyrics you discover it's about how a bride is killed on her wedding day and her ghost avenges her death... and you think "that's a weird thing to write a song about..."

Well, this disc is a lot like that.
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Format: Audio CD
Last years opening salvo from The Decemberists was Castaways and Cutouts. Crafting beautiful songs rich with story, they have quickly become a pinnacle on the scene (followed by another full length release the same year, and already an EP this year, they may also quickly become one of the most prolific if they are not careful). Colin Meloy and his Decemberists hail from Portland OR, and are oft compared to Neutral Milk Hotel. I'm going to get one thing clear and out of the way right off the bat if you don't mind. One, yes, they do sound akin to Neutral Milk Hotel. And two, I'll be perfectly honest, I'm not that fond of Jeff Magnum's voice. Though I can hear the resemblance, I like Colin's voice much, much better. Another reviewer implied that this was a less daring album than Neutral Milk's outings, and I concede that might be a fair assessment. But while the blueprint might not be pushing the envelope quite as far as they did, that does not keep this group from putting together a musical monument through perfect, beautiful execution and well measured emotion.
Overall, this album is dotted with beautiful musical interaction by so many instruments and graced with detailed lyrical imagery. In my mind I can picture them as the last of the wandering minstrels, recanting the ghostly mid nineteenth century tale of young death on "Leslie Ann Levine", featuring what I can only identify as some sort of well played squeeze box ("Fifteen years gone now, I still wander this parapet and shake my rattle bone / Fifteen years gone now, I still cling to the petticoats of the girl who died with me").
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Format: MP3 Music
I will try to keep this short, as you have surely read by now that The Decemberists' debut album Castaways and Cutouts is inhabited by ghosts, prostitutes, nefarious seamen, and various other rogues. You probably also know that the songs evoke a time virtually untouched by modern civilization.

About half of the songs on the album are at least pretty good. These include the only two up-tempo numbers on the album, "July, July!" and "The Legionnaire's Lament". The strong mid-tempo songs include "Leslie Anne Levine", narrated by the ghost of a stillborn baby, "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect", and "A Cautionary Song", which is about mother who must sell her body to randy sailors in order to feed her children. "Odalisque" mixes up the tempos, and will require the first - if not second or third - reference to a dictionary for most listeners. The prominent arpeggios toward the end are reminiscent of "Because" by The Beatles. With these five songs going for it, the first half of the album is uniformly strong.

Alas, several songs on the second half of the CD are a bit, well, boring. "Cocoon" slows the tempo significantly, to the detriment of the song and the album. It is quite difficult to remain interested in it over the course of its seven minutes. "Grace Cathedral Hill" is a better song, but does little to add any momentum. The aforementioned "The Legionnaire's Lament" rescues the listener from the onset of ennui, but "Clementine" - a sweet and sincere song worth listening to at least once - threatens to set it right back in.

Fortunately, Castaways and Cutouts closes on a upbeat note, albeit a very long one. "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade" is the first epic of the group's career.
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Format: Audio CD
There are some bands that one is happy to hear the first time, and there are others that make one feel blessed. Listening to this Decembrists' CD, I reveled in my good fortune; what a wonderful world we live in that can yield music this good.

The Decembrists' "sound" is very distinctive-- organs and accordions feature prominently, while singer/songwriter Colin Meloy's voice is slightly reminiscent of Robyn Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock, Meloy has a uniquely personal writing style, but where Hitchcock is deliriously surreal, Meloy's writing is structured around storytelling. Simply reading through the lyrics (which can be enjoyed in and of themselves), these tales of life's, er, castaways in various exotic time and place settings entertains. Listening to them, of course, is even better.

Throughout, the Decembrists walk a remarkable tightrope. Their music is quirky without being obtuse, literate without being pretentious, catchy with being cloying... I've been listening to a lot of good music this year, and CASTAWAYS might be the highlight. And the fact that they're from Portland is just icing on the cake. Hey, there's a song here called "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect"! You know, I wrote a guidebook to Portland architecture... and you really don't care. :)

Listen to this CD.
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