The Decemberists
Her Majesty the Decemberists
Kill Rock Stars
2003
B+



the success of the Decemberists doesn’t lie in the fact that each song that they write is a miniature world, intimately detailed and poetically rendered. The success of the Decemberists lies in the fact that, on the their two albums and lone EP, their artistic statements are somehow cohesive- never sounding too far from their signature chamber pop sound. Of course, that’s not to say that the group uses the same instruments, devices or songwriting techniques to achieve their purposes- each song is a unique entity, frequently yielding eminently catchy melodies and memorable turns of phrase.

The melodic content, admittedly, is chock full of references to other successful songs: “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” for example, features a bridge which strikes a bit close to the Three’s Company theme (and that’s a good thing, especially considering the song’s title and lyrical basis) and the ever obvious comparison to Neutral Milk Hotel is merely too easy (and I’m perhaps too lazy) not to make. But what great album doesn’t seek to innovate as much as evoke nostalgia?

“The Gymnast High Above the Ground” is easily the centerpiece of the album, clocking in at more than seven minutes and relatively early on. The beauty of the track is almost overwhelming- the pseudo-sloppy acoustic introduction, the nakedly clear vocals of Colin Meloy, the subtle introduction of each element, the chugging momentum of the piece- and any sort of description denies it the justice that is done in actually hearing it. What the song perhaps reflects as a change in the bands aesthetic, though, is the attention to detail paid to these tracks. There is a moment halfway through “The Gymnast…” in between verses in which buzzing strings enter into the mix lightly, fluttering underneath a steel guitar barely drawing attention to themselves as they gradually become clearer. Their introduction is an alien one, they sound disembodied, almost insect-like, but become more and more clear as the track progresses. It’s an apt metaphor for the album as a whole. Underneath the surface of these grand productions lies hidden undercurrents of malice, disgust and social commentary- all things that would seem to be at odds with a beautifully constructed pop song. Additionally, the album unlocks its hidden charms and addictiveness upon repeated listens. Meloy’s narratives, as well, reveal their time and their place only upon close listening and a bit of research.

This sort of device has already used to great effect by bands such as Belle and Sebastian, but the group gives it a new life, especially considering that group’s recent output. The Decemberists brand of chamber pop is a welcome addition to the musical landscape, especially one that is no longer devoid of a great pirate song.
Reviewed by: Todd Burns
Reviewed on: 2003-09-25
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