Saturday, November 28, 2009

And, Now, Finally, the Last of the Decade-ence

And here ends my countdown of my favorite 26 albums of the past decade:

21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.
11–15 are here.
6–10 are here.
4 and 5 are here.
3 is here.
2 is here.

And now...

Drumroll please...

1. The Decemberists, Picaresque, Kill Rock Stars, 2005
Another find via Magnet magazine, who back in 2005, had a short interview with Colin Meloy, singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Portland, OR’s The Decemberists. They sounded interesting so I went to their Web site, checked out some song samples, liked what I heard, and picked up their then-latest album Picaresque. It has not left my iPod (or often my proper CD player) since, and I have gone on to amass their not-immensely-sizable discography. (They formed in the early 2000s and their first EP and LP came out in 2002.)

The Decemberists answer the age-old question, What if Herman Melville fronted Fairport Convention? The Decemberists are an eclectic five-piece band that draws from a wide variety of styles—folk of various kinds, traditional rock, punk and alternative, sea chanteys, etc.—to create what I like to call “pirate folk music.” That is, the kind of music 17th-century pirates might sing. Colin Meloy’s songs tell tales—often involving doomed lovers, people drowning, doomed lovers drowning—basically, you would not want to go on a cruise with him.

Picaresque—the band’s third full album—opens with a triumphant whoop and charging drums that lead into “The Infanta,” probably the band’s most raucous song, a good rave-up about “The Infanta,” heiress to the16th-century Spanish throne. Well, why not? “Here she comes in her palanquin/On the back of an elephant/On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk.” The whole royal family is there; “Within sight of the Baroness/Seething spite for this lithe largesse/By her side sits the Baron—her barren-ness barbs her.” It’s an unusual way to open a very unusual album. It’s great!

“We Both Go Down Together” mixes the classes together; “You come from parents wanton/A childhood rough and rotten/I come from wealth and beauty/Untouched by work or duty.” Naturally, the narrator’s parents don’t approve of this match, so, “Meet me on my vast veranda/My sweet untouched Miranda” and, well, down they go together. In “Eli, the Barrow Boy,” the titular character “sells coal and marigolds/And he cries out all down the day/Below the tamarack he is crying...” Guitarist Chris Funk is dressed as said tamarack on the cover and in the CD booklet art, which feature photos from a purported community theater staging of plays based on the songs. Eli wishes he could afford a fine gown for his beloved, but the point is moot, as she is dead. Then Eli himself drowns, “But still when the moon is out/With his pushcart he calls down the day.” People don’t stay dead long in Meloy song. Eli should hook up with Lesley Anne Levine from Castaways and Cutouts.

Things lighten up a bit in “The Sporting Life,” a stream of consciousness musing—set to “Lust for Life”-esque drums—of a teen athlete who is not exactly the star of the team. As the season draws to a close, he “had known no humiliation/In front my friends and close relations,” sings Meloy, although the work of “an errant heel” threatens to undo the victories of the season. Why does he play sports? Well, to fulfill all his father’s athletic aspirations, natch, although, “apparently now there’s some complications.” Still, our stalwart narrator will “prove to the crowd that I come out stronger/Though I think I might lie here a little longer.”

The narrator of “The Bagman’s Gambit” works for the government, but fell for an international woman of mystery. “How we kissed so sweetly!/How could I refuse a favor or two/And for a tryst in the greenery/I gave you documents and microfilm, too.” She disappears and reappears over the years, usually in some sort of custody, but still: “They’ll never catch me now,” even when she was “purloined in Petrograd.”

The title “From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” pretty much says it all. The “hit single” (not) was “16 Military Wives,” which, as everyone else does, reduces war to numbers. “16 military wives, 32 softly focused, brightly colored eyes/...17 company men, our of which only 12 will make it back again/Sergeant sends a letter to 5 military wives as tears drip down from 10 little eyes.” Meanwhile, “the anchorperson on TV goes la la la la la.” The video is pretty funny.

“The Engine Driver” presents a cross-section of society the titular engine driver and the county lineman, to the fiction writer to the wealthy moneylender, all of whom have the same basic need to be loved and wanted by someone else. “On the Bus Mall” chronicles the lives of two aging gay hustlers who, “here in our hovel we fused like a family.”

The album’s centerpiece is the epic “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which is set largely in the stomach of a whale, where the narrator finally is able to confront the blackguard who ruined his poor mother’s life many years earlier. “And then you disappeared/Your gambling arrears/The only thing you left behind.” All the while, the narrator is haunted by his mother’s dying words, “Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole/And break his fingers to splinters/Drag him to a hole until he wakes up naked/Clawing at the ceiling of his grave!” Well, mother knows best.

Picaresque was produced by Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie and benefits from a much fuller (and lavish) production than their previous two albums. The Decemberists’ albums have been getting progressively less picaresque; if their first three records were collections of short stories, then 2006’s The Crane Wife added a couple of novellas, while 2009’s The Hazards of Love was a full-length novel—an album-length concept album. It was hard to pick only one Decemberists album for this best-of countdown; almost all of them (maybe not Her Majesty) would have appeared on here had I not decided to limit this countdown to one album per single band.

Mi hermano and I have seen them a couple of times in concert and they have been two of the best concerts I have ever seen.

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