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Artist: The Decemberists


Label: Kill Rock Stars / Hush

Review date: Jul. 25, 2002

You are a mandolin: a small, lute-like instrument with a typically pear-shaped body and a straight fretted neck, having usually four sets of paired strings tuned in unison or octaves. You have a cool design at the top of your neck, a nice sunburst pattern painted on your front, and a full, rich sound that entrances your listeners with its dulcet, subtle harmonies. Life is good. Or, that is, life was good. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, you had it made. You were a staple of folk musicians across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Your unique tone suited all kinds of music, and by the end of the 19th century, you were ubiquitous. Even in the 20th century, you had your moments: country and western, folk, those Zeppelin songs about mountains.

As the 20th century unfurled, however, you found yourself obsolete. Soon, the big sound was arena rock, full of electric guitars and cheesy synths. The best you could get were two songs in the second encore of a Grateful Dead concert. As the seventies progressed and the eighties dawned, life as a mandolin was bleak. You were officially laid to rest as a rock instrument with the premier of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” video in the fall of 1984. By then, if you were a mandolin you had two choices: play in an Irish folk band or hang on a wall.

But then something happened. You were in again. With so much sterile pop and rock in the eighties, people needed something different, something more human and organic. Something that sounded like an Instrument. Anyone order a mandolin? Suddenly you were everywhere again, on both sides of the Atlantic, in all kinds of bands: the Waterboys, Big Country, 10,000 Maniacs, and in the all-time great mandolin video, “Shiny Happy People”, by R.E.M. People were playing melody-driven rock, music that dipped into pop history and attempted to create something new that was just as powerful. For these bands, sincerity and the quality of playing were essential, and in that situation, what’s more essential than a mandolin?

Enter Portland's Decembrists, a recently formed group of various mandolin-minded musicians. The Decembrists’ vocalist and songwriter, Colin Meloy, is searching through the past to create something fresh, both in his songwriting and in his instrumentation.

The characters that populate his songs are like something out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, tossed in with a little E.A. Poe. Sailors, whores, thieves, and even a dead baby are given voice by the Decembrists gentle, waltz-timed pop. Upright bass, acoustic guitar, vintage organ, and brushed drums mix together to make music that sounds strangely and wonderfully anachronistic. It doesn’t recall any one musical genre of the past, and it certainly doesn’t exist in either our laptop/glitch/IDM or Pavement-lite indie pop present. Rather, its history and context belong to an imagined era, one where a doomed, single-mother prostitute spends long, lonely hours beneath the deck of a ship, tied up and bemoaning her fate to no one. One where a girl’s uncle is a gun-runner who dies clutching his guts in a barren Canadian field. One where people can see past the breadth of their tragedy to reveal some kind of strange, poetic understanding of how their life and its miseries somehow make sense.

Meloy likes to create worlds, evoke strange characters, and pile on a ton of creepy, sordid atmosphere. He’s equally capable of writing elegiac dirges (“Leslie Anne Levine”) and jaunty, winning pop songs (“July, July”). This kind of music can be hopelessly pretentious or remote if it is delivered wrong, and luckily the Decembrists manage to avoid sounding like either the Counting Crows or the Eagles, which they could have if Meloy weren’t so careful. To me, the Decembrists sound like they could have opened up for R.E.M. on their “Document” tour, not because their music sounds dated, but because their sensibility seems to fit better into that era. The incredible ability to alter and transform music with the computer has led to some mind-bending results and extraordinarily progressive music, but it’s sometimes refreshing to hear bands that are capable of embracing their past and pointing to the future at the same time. The Decembrists are this kind of band, and while they might not sound sufficiently experimental to turn many heads these days, their songwriting, ear for melody, and depth of playing should earn them some regard, and as this is only their first album, they seem to possess an enormous amount of potential.

By Jason Dungan

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