Thursday, May 24, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1141: The Decemberists

Usually when I shop for music I bring with me list of all the albums I’m looking for. This weekend I was a bit out of sorts and found myself in the store with 30 minutes to spare, but no list. I took a chance and working off of memory managed to find four albums on my list. These were:
  • Sleater-Kinney “All Hands on the Bad One” (2000)
  • Courtney Barnett “Tell Me How You Really Feel” (2018)
  • David Francey “The Broken Heart of Everything” (2017)
  • Okkervil River “In the Rainbow Rain” (2018)
Actually, only three were on my list. I had intended to listen to a few more songs off the new Okkervil River before deciding. Oops. I hope it all works out. Coincidentally, that’s what happened for this next review.

Disc 1141 is… I’ll Be Your Girl
Artist: The Decemberists

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? I am not a fan of this collage-style art so the less said, the better.

How I Came To Know It: I’m a long-time fan of the Decemberists and I’d liked a couple of the early releases from this album so I took the plunge. Sometimes it isn’t much of a story.

How It Stacks Up:  Of the eight Decemberists albums in my collection, “I’ll Be Your Girl” isn’t the greatest but it holds its own. I’ll rank it…fifth. This bumps “Castaways and Cutouts” down to #6 (it started out at #2 when I only had two albums and it has been getting bumped ever since).

Ratings: 3 stars

Put on your heavy eyeliner and wear black because on “I’ll Be Your Girl” the Decemberists embrace their inner Goth and take you along for the ride.

The big addition here is the atmospheric organ floating along in the mix on many songs, as singer-songwriter Colin Meloy adds another trick to his repertoire. The bones of these songs are still vintage Decemberists. They have folk melodies and archaic-sounding expressions like “a wayward child lost anon” and “the augur of a distant ringing bell” but this is mixed in with synth grooves that would have been at home at a nightclub in 1987.

This could go wrong, but it doesn’t. Meloy wisely lets these additional sounds paint flourishes around the edges of the song, or sit in the back of a very layered mix rather than overwhelm the listener. They’re there for you if you want to flip your hair in your face, and do some eighties dancing. If you don’t, you can just as easily focus on the more traditional sounds of the Decemberists: Meloy’s high vibrata vocal and stories that feel stuck in some kind of semi-magical countryside populated with hidden enchanted springs and faeries waiting to steal you away.

I enjoyed the record both ways, flipping back and forth between enjoying the proto-techno grooves and traditional folk structures that always float my boat. The opening track “Once in My Life” is a good example. It has that heart-worn anthem quality of most Decemberist songs and an easy strum at home on any of their more traditional indie folk offerings, but it also has glum lyrics like:

“Oh for once in my life
Could just something go
Could just something go right?”

…that would make Morrissey or Robert Smith proud and a sad organ that makes you pine for Molly Ringwald.

Severed” abandons any middle ground early, with a straight up drum, organ groove and a guitar that feels like it wants to be a bass. It isn’t what you expect from the Decemberists, but in a weird way it is familiar. Meloy’s vocals are a big part of that, but so is the structure of the song that has a restless energy that slowly builds but never quite bursts. It is the tension that holds their folkier fare together, and it works here as well.

It isn’t all great. “Everything is Awful” is just that, awful. It feels like a response to that dumb Lego movie song “Everything is Awesome” with lots of silly call and answer and an arrangement that sounds like it belongs on Sesame Street. However, it isn’t the new elements of Goth that wreck it; I just didn’t like the song.

Later in the record the band spreads its wings a bit. “Sucker’s Prayer” has an a.m. radio guitar rock sway that made me think of 1975 and ironic moustaches before they were ironic. O who am I kidding? Those moustaches were always ironic. But I digress – it is a cool song with a bit more guitar than the rest of the record, and it gets bonus points for mentioning my favourite French poet, Charles Baudelaire.

The record ends with the title track, a short little love song, stripped down and touching. Like the rest of the record, the lyrics are creative and evocative. Meloy sings:

“So when everything soft abrades you
When fortune has long betrayed you
And you’re longing for an arm to stay you
I’ll be your girl.”

The song has a hint of the eighties in the plonk of the guitar, but mostly this is the Decemberists stripped down, and Meloy reminding you he could have kept it simple and sweet the whole time but he wanted to stretch his wings a little. That stretching ends up turning into a solid record which is brave without being brazen and sweet without being saccharine. Well played, you crazy folk-Goths.

Best tracks: Once in My Life, Severed, Sucker’s Prayer, I’ll Be Your Girl

1 comment:

Chris said...

Have you seen who's included in "this album is dedicated to:" in the liner notes?

I really like this album. It's getting a lot of play at home and through the headphones at work.