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The Decemberists - Her Majesty the Decemberists

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Artist: The Decemberists

Album: Her Majesty the Decemberists

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Nov. 7, 2003

In the band photograph that accompanies Her Majesty the Decemberists, the Decemberists appear gathered around a piano, mugging histrionically for the camera. With their manic gesturing, costumes and absurd handlebar moustaches, they both mock and engage the performer’s frantic desire to entertain and please. Last years Castaways and Cutouts marked the appearance of the Decemberists before a national audience, and with it they laid out the aesthetic and approach that also characterizes Her Majesty the Decemberists.

Colin Meloy, the songwriter and lead singer for the band, has said that he is tired of writing about the angsty lovelives of twentysomethings. Here he turns to tropes of exoticism and the past that are even more tried – like clipper ships scented with cardamom and myrrh, and the seduction of young men by attractive Japanese geishas – proving that what may be played out in the context of an 18th century adventure novel for young boys is startlingly fresh material for a rock song. Meloy freely adopts historical personae and locales for his songwriting, placing the Decemberists out at sea in one song and picking up the part of a young gymnast in another.

That the Decemberists are a literate bunch is revealed on both their records through their fondness for unusual stories and archaic language. Their quirky, literary bent was unfortunately also signified on Castaways and Cutouts by Meloys adoption of a faux-Irish accent at arbitrary points throughout the album. It seemed like a silly conceit – must the unconventional world created in their album be harnessed to some hackneyed convention of Old World cleverness? On Her Majesty, the accent has thankfully been lost, and while the record lacks the immediate standout tracks like "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" that marked Castaways and Cutouts, the record as a whole is appealing and slyly catchy. Castaways and Cutouts had a dreamy distance that made it sound like a mysterious and unplaceable artifact. Some of that dreaminess has been sacrificed on Her Majesty for a warmer, more engaging sound and the chamber pop sounds of the resulting record are very satisfying.

There are only a few missteps on the record – the Decemberists walk a fine line with their brand of whimsy and cleverness, and some of the songs fall a little flat. The wordplay on "Song for Myla Goldberg" is a little too obtrusive and obvious to be clever, coming across as a tongue twister set to music rather than interesting song writing. The ye olde cleverness of "The Chimbley Sweep" with its accordions and images of wee soot-smeared urchin "chimbley sweeps" is a bit cringe-inducing in its quaintness.

But these are among the only jarring moments on an otherwise excellent record, and in other places the Decemberists skillfully pull off things that would have been a mess in less imaginative musician’s hands. Their fascination with performance and the stage extends well past the band photograph and is apparent in several of the records best songs, from "Los Angeles I'm Yours" to "I was Meant for the Stage". "Los Angeles I'm Yours" is a song that seems to speak to both the past and present of L.A., a bitter love letter to the city. Los Angeles apparently calls to Meloy with the same quixotic refrain of the past.

They answer with a song that is a pastiche of every over-the-top jazzy soft-rock song, one that would be irritating if it didn't also feel so perfect as a paean to the emptiness of L.A. As Meloy sings "this is the realest thing" he strikes just the right note of absurdity. The song tells the story of the anomie of L.A. as well as any Nathanael West or Joan Didion novel. Never merely a novelty, however, these songs can be affecting as well, as on "Red Right Ankle", which opens with Meloy and his guitar, his voice a slightly hoarse quaver, introducing a bit of pathos into the mix. From Carson Ellis's excellent cover art onward, Her Majesty the Decemberists creates an intriguing and aesthetically complete world.

By Emily Wanderer

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