John Lappin

The Decemberists
"Career Overview"

5th August 2004
Album Cover reviewer: John Lappin
rating: 5 out of 5
published by: Kill Rock Stars
released: 26th May 2003
  1. 5 Songs
  2. The Tain
  3. Castaways And Cutouts
  4. Her Majesty The Decemberists

I’ve decided to cover all the Decemberists' work in one review here, as I discovered them all at around the same time last year.

When you first put any of these records on you’re greeted with a sense of odd familiarity and intrigue at the same time. The music is similar to stuff you may have heard before, but with a slightly unnerving twist, and when you listen to the lyrics you start to picture scenes from things like the ITV series 'Sharpe's Rifles'. The subject matter dealt with is very original and at the same time very old. Soldiers at war, vagabonds, pirates, dead children, Los Angeles, lost souls, legionnaires and Chinese trapeze artists shacking up with communists during revolutions are just some of the subjects dealt with.

This inimitable style gives the Decemberists a certain romanticism often lacking in music today and keeps you coming back to listen again to tales that were only written about in old boys' adventure books before now. The music is the perfect accompaniment for these tales and they seem to have a natural ability to create sounscapes that put you right in the middle of the often odd, but exciting, stories.

Now I should mention, this will certainly not be to everyone's taste. Some may find the Decemberists a little too “Grandad's war songs” or just plain “not modern enough”, but for those looking for something a little different, whilst not wanting to stray too far from their pop sensibilities, this is just the ticket. Having said that, these wounded soldiers aren’t afraid to experiment a little when taking shelter from the mortar fire. 'California Youth And Beauty Brigade', 'I Was Meant For The Stage' and a few others can veer off into eight minute Victorian-styled prog rock at times, and there’s usually some odd shit going on somewhere in every song if you take a little time to find it. It is, however, 'The Tain' EP that is the most interesting in this respect. It’s just one song, just shy of twenty minutes long, which takes you on a rollercoaster ride through genres and leaves you breathless. But even in the poppier numbers, the genius of the lyrics is enough to set them apart. If you’ve ever heard any First World War poems or anything similar, then you’ll get the idea.

Both 'Castaways And Cutouts' and 'Her Majesty' are great albums and the only full length records currently available. The '5 Songs' EP is very good but contains songs that later appear on the other records, although its exclusive tracks make it worthy of a purchase. 'The Tain' is a great record to own, but you may want to start somewhere else, as it’s kind of limited in appeal to non-fans.