The Decemberists
5 Songs EP
Hush
2003
A+



i don’t normally do this, but a recent review at Delusions of Adequacy has incensed me to write a response-review to the disgraceful aforementioned piece -- which is less of a review, than a mono-spun whine against The Decemberists not fitting the writers definition of “pop.” I simply had to rebut.


Margie writes: I have a bit of a problem with 5 Songs, The Decemberists' latest release. Their bio quotes them as being "top-notch pop auteurs" and describes their music as "devastatingly pop." In actuality, The Decemberists are the furthest from being a pop band.


We must begin somewhere, and begin we shall in defining “pop.” But first of all, I don’t know what bio she speaks of, but the one I read describes The Decemberists’ music as “peculiarly styled pop,” which couldn’t be more apt in this writers opinion. But back to that slippery little word: “pop.” For a definition, I went to All Music Guide. AMG writes: In a broad sense, pop is any music based on memorable melodies, repeated sections (usually, but not always, verses and choruses), and a tight, concise structure that keeps the listener's focus on those elements.


Sounds like the Decemberists personified. But Margie has more issues with the album: The songs are flat and nothing really stands out - neither the lyrics nor the music will get stuck in your head. The songs are just simply playing in the background, and every now and again you'll forget the album is even on.


Now this really hurts. It really does. Margie must have been listening to a bit too much Taking Back Sunday to remember what a memorable hook sounds like. I like to think I have a sensitive ear to a good melody, and I must say that every song, from “Oceanside” to “Apology Song” is laden with Meloy’s truly remarkable gift for infusing poetic, dictionary-grabbing (he has a degree in creative writing) lyrics with addictive harmonies; it is nearly impossible not to sing-a-long.


Lead singer Colin Meloy touched on “pop,” and described his musical ambitions in a past interview, saying "I really like pop songs, but lately I've really been into creating things with a little more story than boy-meets-girl. I got fed up with writing about your angsty love life, your typical sad, sentimental twentysomething existence. There's too much of that already. So I figured, you might as well write from the perspective of a 19th-century chimney sweep [“Leslie Ann Levine]. At least that's not being done."


5 Songs was originally self-released by the band previous to their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, but was lovingly re-released, and re-packaged by Hush Records. Hush originally released their debut in 2002, but the album has recently been re-released (exhale) by Kill Rock Stars Records. Packaged with an added, I assume leftover from Castaways track, 5 Songs shows Meloy already establishing his penchant for out of the ordinary, historically influenced pop tunes, and the band as the most promising act in years.


With that established, I proceed to the songs.


Softly sweeping acoustics open “Oceanside,” where our protagonists plaintively yearns for his Sweet Annabelle to leave her nautical ways and join him on the shore, where he can “lay [her] muscles wide.” The protagonist, an admitted ne'erdowell (which is something even he couldn’t do well) continues to dream for his July bride, seeing the current moment as nothing short of perfect; but he slowly shakes his head, and comes to his senses that he’s a feckless boy, gathering dust and will never change his ways. And Annabelle is much the same way -- stuck in her own routine.


“Shiny” to me is like a less-violent “Rusholme Ruffians,” with a steady, fast-paced strumming. We find our protagonist and his love at the local fair where delinquent hooligans loiter and snatch. The young boy believes he may have “gone too far” with his love near the bumper cars, possibly instigating her flight. He dreams of himself with her, frozen in time in a never-ending cycle of spurn to entwinement. Still reminiscing, he remembers their clandestine affair being intruded upon by a stranger under the tilt-a-whirl.


Later, walking the length and breadth of the fairgrounds, he spots his love near the rollercoaster and pursues her. She evades and in turn, injures her shin. Our boy ignores the injury, instead staring into her optics, proclaiming “I have never seen two eyes so shiny.” The girl stumbles forward but is ensnared by some “sullen beery swine” with rope. The girl escapes and flees, and our boy is left standing in the dirt and sawdust, asking his love why she betrayed him -- and what she does to keep her eyes so shiny.


Packed with more historical references than “The Legionnaire’s Lament,” “My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist” is Meloy at his most historical, and long-winded. Opening in antebellum WW2 Paris, we learn that the protagonist’s mother met her husband at a feast in the French city of Aix-en-Provence. “He was disguised as a Russian cadet in the employ of the axis.” sings Meloy. But why the father would portray himself as the enemy of France, and then toast to the popular French cabaret singer Edith Piaf, and the fall of the Third Reich eludes me. They are both obvious French nationalists, with allusions made to the mother’s war efforts earlier in the song, saying she ran bombs for the “underground.” My conclusion is that the fathers situation, and reasoning behind disguising himself can’t be adequately explained through the lyrics provided.


The story continues with the protagonist confessing more details about his past. His sister was abandoned in the shed where she was born, but was picked up by a communist deserter with grand dreams of being in an American punk band. Fast forward: the communist and his sister live on a tobacco plantation where she weeds, and he “offends the nation.” The protagonist then tells of his own origin in a whore-house. Raised (“surprisingly”) delicately until the cash flow terminated, his parents lost him to a visonless brigadier in a game of cards. The tale ends with the protagonist declaring the knowledge gained from his naval life, but desiring to leave the ocean, and work with pastries.


More instrumentally and lyrically cheerful than the previous songs, “Angel, Won’t You Call Me” is a simple self-depreciating love tune opening with Meloy acknowledging that he’s a “lost cause” but still appealing to his haloed love in question to communicate with him. He admits he is overzealous and spineless in the same breath, but in the end, it seems like he gets his jewel; posing for her as she snaps a picture.


Told through separate, but somehow connected narratives, not unlike "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” basic acoustic strumming opens “I Don’t Mind” and begins with Julie’s tale. An actress, Julie has an affliction, but knows not what, and why. We get the impression that she is a talented and beloved actress when Meloy sings of the cheering continuing long after the stagelights have dimmed.


After a short trumpet interlude, Meloy tells King George’s tale (which King George is anyone’s guess; the Internet and I are not familiar with a King George with a lazy eye and a passion for videography). Confusing lines follow. From what I can glean, the “semafore” (misspelled “semaphore”) that breaks on the King’s “tawdry” bride may be in reference to her arms, seeing as a semaphore is a signaling devise, like a railroad crossing, or the waving of flags. The narrative continues to speak about the King being strained by his homeland even when he has his many material goods.


The final tale is a bit easier to interpret: a young boy is taking the trek into “the woods,” which can be taken literally, or metaphorically. The boy’s mother is overjoyed at her son’s tenacity, but the son is hesitant, and reminisces nightly of his mother screaming for calamine lotion. The stanza ends the same as the aforementioned two tales, with the narrator asking “Is it too late to tell you that I don't mind?”


The bonus track, which makes the EP title a misnomer, bounces along to the heavy organ heard on many a Decemberists tracks. Described as a crowd pleaser on the Hush site, “Apology Song” is a nice upbeat closer to an overall melancholy disk. A prosaic, uh, apology song to Steven, a man who put too much trust in his friend, and has thus lost his beloved Madeleine. Madeline is a bicycle. Yes, the song is about a stolen bike, and according to the picture in the liner notes, a somewhat homely one at that. Forgetting to lock Madeleine up, our narrator comes out of the store to find the bike absconded with, and in its place, just some “bored old dog.” Sounding truly penitent, our narrator explains his error, and makes no excuses for it, explaining how he wrote this song in the hope that its owner would absolve him of his err. I know I would.


I couldn’t end without one more Margie quote. She ends her review with a final stab: [The Decemberists’] biggest problem is repetition; all the songs sound rather similar, making the album seem like one long song instead of six. If you enjoy simple indie (not pop!) music with an easy listening feel than I would definitely recommend The Decemberists. But if you're looking for an album with more variety, pass this one up.


My response: The Decemberists’ music may be simple, instrumentally, but the lyrical tales that Meloy weaves will keep your ears perked, and your diaphragm in steady use. If by “easy listening” she means, simply pleasing to the ear, then yes, if she means it is without substance, she must have it confused with her beloved David Gray and the Violents.


Reviewed by: Gentry Boeckel
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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