The Decemberists Picaresque

Not many bands can do rollickingly haunted, pull off emotional literacy or make such odd juxtapositions work in brilliant ways the way The Decemberists can.

They are a wry and lyrical five-part band from Portland, Oregon who somehow manage to create a lively mix of marches, dirges, carnie tunesmithing, and sounds from a bygone era without descending to novelty-group kitsch. Instead, their sound is imaginative indie-folk-pop that will knock your socks off, even if you hate that indie folk stuff.

I was introduced to The Decemberists midway through their career, with their second label-released album, the critically acclaimed, Her Majesty the Decemberists. You like pirates, my boyfriend said, and that was extremely true, so I agreed. Listen to these guys, he said. They have a pirate song. And they did. "We set to sail on a packet full of spice, rum and tea leaves," sings Colin Meloy above mournful acoustic guitar and an accordion that wheezes and swoops like the gulls on the Bay.

I was immediately taken in a way that I am not often with a band - there is something about the wit, intelligence and charm of The Decemberists' music and songwriting that is heart-capturing and
irresistible in its uniqueness. Theirs is a romantic and epic kind of sound, and Colin Meloy, the band's writer and singer, seems not to be writing songs, but stories, creating a brightly, sharply imagined world of Dickensian melodrama, each song an event with its own richly envisioned backdrop in both music and words.

The opening lines of their new album, Picaresque, capture that same feeling that I found in Her Majesty. An infanta is borne "in her palanquin on the back of an elephant" and the music is majestic and wild. The penultimate song finds a sailor trapped in the belly of a whale with the man who had ruined his family, "leaving my mother a poor consumptive wretch." In between, there are songs of chimney sweeps, soldiers in trenches during the first world war, and legionnaires fleeing Paris, and each brims over with ingenious and mellifluous rhymes - "The Duchess's luscious young girls" is gorgeous. Not to mention "And above all this folderal / on a bed made of chaparral." You really cannot help but admire that excessively.

Over the course of their discography, their sound has grown more and more intense and complicated, and Picaresque seems to be the pinnacle of this evolution, with thundering drums and amped-up melodies that still retain their whimsy, to match up well with the wistful eccentricity of the lyrics.

Meloy knows how to ground his rococo epics and twisty literate flourishes in the personal and powerful, so however comic or macabre (or both) the lyrics become, they're always powerfully moving, too, making Picaresque a must-have for lovers not just of pirates.

- Jen Larsen