Colin Meloy wanted to be a novelist. His songs have an antique literary quality, as if they should arrive in a bound tome, smelling sweetly of dust and mold. With the Decemberists' first two albums, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty the Decemberists, Meloy placed tales of chimney sweeps and prostitutes atop pop melodies so bright and catchy as to practically require cancan dancing. But while most reviews of the eccentric Portland band focus on their quirky subject matter--or the fact that precious few lyricists these days dare to rhyme "pachyderm"--what they sometimes neglect is how downright enjoyable these songs can be. As a songwriter, Meloy is accessible even as he grows more ambitious in scope and instrumentation, and he can write a love song as spare and sparkling as they come (See "Of Angels and Angels" on this album or "Red Right Ankle" from Her Majesty the Decemberists). Besides, you don't have to understand the tale of Russian espionage at the heart of "The Bagman's Gambit" (20 listens, and I still don't) to get chills at the climax of shuddering violins and drums. Picaresque does require a certain appreciation for $10 words and toe-tapping rhythms, but those willing to persevere will find themselves rewarded with some of the most peculiar and irresistible pop songs around. The 10-minute accordion epic "Mariner's Revenge" is as dark and gripping as a Grimm's fairy tale; I wish it came with a picture book so I could turn pages at the sound of the beep. Some of these tales may be exotic or creaky with age, but their meaning and messages, like the best novels, are timeless.
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