Record Review - 1 October 16 2003

Colin Meloy, primary songwriter for Portland’s the Decemberists, seems to channel Neutral Milk Hotel’s lost indie-rock hero Jeff Mangum. But he’s more of a substitute. Meloy’s not only more prolific than Mangum, he’s different in content, arrangement and aftertaste.

Reissued after a year under the radar, Castaways and Cutouts introduces Meloy et al. as intricate and accessible musical dreamweavers. Pedal steel, Hammond organs and theremin evoke a fantastical world of Spanish puppeteers, pirates and countesses, as Meloy looks on with a lute and a song, his clearly phrased lyrical musings drawing characters and setting them to work. The result is a carefully metered album brimming with an instinctual romanticism that finds its melody less in riffs or progressions than in Meloy’s delivery.

Where Mangum devised an alternate universe in which he mined the depths of social analysis, Meloy lives in reality — albeit one that, more often than not, happened before his time. He envisions scenes, frolics in them and brings back news. Where Mangum was an editorialist, Meloy is a reporter.

On the new Her Majesty the Decemberists, Meloy is again time traveling, his able-bodied company continuing to back his anecdotes with ornate orchestration. But this time out, Meloy seems more mischievous, less tender, and, oddly enough, more distant. It may be the feel of increasingly varied tempos, the less obvious shifts in instrumentation within each song, or lyrics like, “O ladies, pleasant and demure/Sallow cheek’d and sure/I can see your undies.” But despite the newfound cheekiness, Meloy’s scenes are still vivid. The Decemberists remain a welcoming host and, to some, a nostalgic ghost.

The Decemberists play the Caledonia Lounge in Athens Mon., Oct. 20. Call for ticket price.