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2023 Albums Thing 094 - The Decemberists “Castaways And Cutouts”

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OK it’s time to settle in…we are now starting on a lengthy section where we will cover The Decemberists entire output. I’m somewhat obsessed with The Decemberists. It was, however, an obsession long in the making. Back at the beginning of the 2000’s, I would suppose 2002 when this album was originally released, my brother Miles told me I should have a listen to this album as he figured I would like it. I got as far as (legally) downloading a copy but for one reason or another I never got around to listening to it. Fast forward a decade or so and I was in my local at the open mic night when a fella I now only remember as Ian got up and played an absolutely fantastic song. When he’d finished I asked what it was to be told it was called “Don’t Carry It All” by The Decemberists. “Hang on” I thinks, that was the band Milo told me to have a listen to 10 years ago (!). So when I got home I dug up that (legally) downloaded copy I had stored away and had a listen, I loved it. So I then ordered a CD of the album Ian had played a song from, “The King Is Dead” and when that arrived I found I loved that too. An an obsession was born.

For those unfamiliar with The Decemberists they are a 5 piece band from Portland, Oregon who are influenced particularly by English folk music and The Smiths. Now the latter of those two should put me right off but main-man Colin Meloy has taken that influence and fashioned it into something much more interesting. He’s a great, great songwriter and a fantastic lyricist, the number of times I’ve had to reach for a dictionary while listening to this band, I’ve lost count of.

The very first song sets a template for The Decemberists that still holds today and also marks the first time I had to reach for the dictionary. “Leslie Anne Levine” is a folky lament concerning the titular character who is singing from the point of view of being the ghost of a newborn who was “Born at nine and dead at noon”. The dictionary moment is delivered by the line “Fifteen years gone now, Still a wastrel mesallied” where messallied seems to be derived from the French word "mésalliance" meaning a marriage to a person of inferior social standing. In second song, “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect”, we hear of “The perfume that the air would bring to the indolent town”, I can’t think of another songwriter using language so beautifully. If you decide to start listening to The Decemberists get used to moments like this and an expansion of your vocabulary. 

“Castaways And Cutouts” is a primarily acoustic based album, pedal steel guitars give it a country tinge in places, upright bass adds a hint of jazziness. Meloy is finding his way as a singer and a songwriter but there are goodies here and those, added to his wordsmithery, make it all a delightful listen. Certain lyrical themes are evident that work their way through the bands entire output, soldiering, death, star crossed lovers, seafaring (yer bog standard folk subject matter I guess) and these coupled with the language (I’m on about it again…“And here in Spain I am a Spaniard, I will be buried with my marionettes, Countess and courtesan have fallen 'neath my tender hand”) create an atmosphere of an older world, long gone. 

This is not to imply that the music within is in any way “old fashioned”. “Grace Cathedral Hill” (“I'm sweet on a green-eyed girl, All fiery Irish clip and curl, All brine and piss and vinegar”) and the final “California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade” (“We're calling all bed wetters and ambulance chasers, Poor picker-pockets, bring 'em in”) are both quite breathtaking songs lyrically and melodically. It is a perfect mash-up of Folk and The Smiths that I suspect fans of either will find as engaging as I do. “Castaways And Cutouts” presents The Decemberists fully formed, from here on they hone their craft to heights that have kept me enthralled for some 15 years.

Grace Cathedral Hill - https://youtu.be/82QuFhr_ABc

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