Release Date: Mar 22, 2005
Record label: Kill Rock Stars
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Awry five-piece from Portland, Oregon, the Decemberists clearly like a shaggy dog story, and while Picaresque might make you think a little of the Smiths, Belle and Sebastian (particularly This Sporting Life and The Engine Driver) and even the Go-Betweens, it's no fey pastiche but rather the eccentric cavalcade of odd characters, event and styles that its title suggests. Both the Motown-ish romp of This Sporting Life and Military Wives pull off the irresistible trick of stringing acerbic commentary on joyous hooks, and would make fine singles. But the battered heart of Picaresque are songs such as Eli, the Barrow Boy, which has the folky, disturbed gravity of a murder ballad, and the genuinely picaresque tale of a doomed affair with an international spy/terrorist/ dissident, The Bagman's Gambit ("For a tryst in the greenery/ I gave you documents and microfilm").
"The Infanta," the thunderous opening track on the Decemberists' fluid and predictably studious Picaresque, rolls in like a ghost ship at 40 knots in a hail of cannon fire with a mad English professor at the wheel. Colin Meloy and his esteemed West Coast colleagues have no qualms about beginning their third full-length record with a processional about a child monarch, and it's a testimony to their talents as orators and interpreters of both the absurd and the mundane that they continue to assimilate more fans than they alienate. While Picaresque follows its predecessor's -- the treacly Her Majesty -- predilection for seafaring and mythology, its boot-covered feet are more firmly planted in the present, resulting in the group's most accessible -- and decidedly upbeat -- product to date.
“Don’t try to figure out what music you like,” a wise man once said. “Figure out what music likes you.” The starkly polarized reactions inspired of late by the kitchen-sink pop outfit the Decemberists suggest that music lovers are grappling with the latter task, and that’s good. And yet, when such contrived, manipulative schlock inspires any reaction at all, it perhaps speaks more ill of the age than well of the listeners.