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Kill Rock Stars
The Decemberists, it seems, have undergone a sea change: Their third and latest full-length, Picaresque, features not one song about pirates. Sure, the 9-minute penultimate track is called “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” but for the bulk of the disc, Portland, Ore., songwriter Colin Meloy and his four game assistants have turned their attentions to matters landlocked. That doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their sense of adventure, however. Recorded in a former Baptist church and produced by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and keyboardist Chris Walla, Picaresque may be the Decemberists’ grandest effort to date. Album-opener “The Infanta” rides in on Rachel Blumberg’s hard-charging drumbeat as the Portuguese child princess of the title is trotted through town on the back of an elephant, “[a]ll astride (on her father’s line)/With the King and his Concubine/And her nurse, with her pitchers of liquors and milk.” Lavish scene-setting for sure, and Meloy & Co. match it with almost every instrument in their arsenal—Hammond organ, piano, hammered dulcimer, guitar, hurdy-gurdy, violin. They also, ahem, dress up in silly costumes to illustrate selected songs for the liner notes. But as much as these guys might be joking about their penny-dreadful image, musically, at least, they convince you that they really mean it, man: Picaresque presents a crazy, fucked-up world that spans centuries and continents, yet manages to be consistently convincing. Meloy’s nasal vocals are one reason for the cohesiveness, and he uses them to fine effect on the acoustic folk ballad “Eli the Barrow Boy.” His plaintive warble is a sad and lovely vehicle for the wretched boy’s tale: “Below the tamaracks he is crying/‘Corncobs and candlewax for the buying!’/All down the da-a-a-ay.” The following track, “The Sporting Life,” jolts the listener with a Motown beat and cheery retelling of a soccer player’s spectacularly public failure. “[T]here’s my father looking on/There’s my girlfriend arm in arm/With the captain of the other team,” Meloy cries over the bass drum, tambourine, and organ. “They condescend to fix on me a frown/How they love the sporting life!” It may be the first-ever number to successfully knit American-girl-group songwriting with English-prep-school social commentary. And like every track here, it’s both a remarkably detailed short story and a satisfying singalong. Tale after tale, the unfortunate citizens of Picaresque are marvelous company: doomed spies, boy prostitutes, and, yeah, one seaman with a grudge. —Anne Marson