Castaways And Cutouts

The Decemberists

Kill Rock Stars, 2003

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


In the early aughts, when indie rock and garage revivals were all the rage, the Decemberists both fit in and stood out from their peers. They based their low-key music on acoustic folk and coffeehouse pop, but then they added a layer of baroque Victorian instruments and set it to lyrics that read more like folktales from hundreds of years ago.

The sincerity of Colin Meloy’s vocals and the dark story-songs lent this album a dreamy, timeless quality, one that veers closer to a progressive-rock folk approach. It’s an album with atmosphere, one that draws the listener into the stories, but also works as background music. It’s not entirely successful or consistent, but the best moments and the overall vibe still rank among the band’s best.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Still, more than the music, the old-timey characters are what bring this album to life. The German soldier smelling flowers outside a concentration camp, the French-Canadian uncle running moonshine who gets shot on the trail, the prostitute who sells herself to soldiers on the docks to feed her children, the Spanish conquistador, the sad French Legionnaire who misses home. These are relatable, doomed characters who find joy where they can and whose heartbreak can inspire their descendants.

The album moves confidently through its midtempo songs, quickening the pace for the poppy “July, July!” and slowing down for “California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade,” always serving the story and not the other way around. The musical high point is “Odalisque,” which is driven by a spooky Hammond organ and a pace that quickens as the song progresses; it’s also the darkest story here.

The back half of the album tends to falter; “Legionnaire’s Lament” makes its story pop with an accordion, but “Clementine,” “Cocoon” and “Grace Cathedral Hill” are overlong and slow, although the latter works as a love song. And even if the 10-minute closer “California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade” doesn’t quite justify its runtime, its scope is admirable and it works as a fitting closer to the album, simply by celebrating youth and a future of possibilities. One imagines it’s a future that can be avoided by the nine cautionary tales that precede it.

Castaways And Cutouts was the start to a fascinating career and is still considered one of the band’s best albums, and likely their most literary. It also announced their arrival in a major way and remains one of the most idiosyncratic and original debuts of the last 20 years.

Rating: B-

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