Sometime in the Summer of 2002, when the rest of us were, apparently, paying no attention, Portland indie Hush Records put out a splendid little album by the Decemberists called Castaways and Cutouts. The album’s sound was a throwback to 1998, when Jeff Mangum was wooing critics with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. It even recalled a somber Robyn Hitchcock at times. Both whimsical and dark, The Decemberists brought more to indie rock than mere quirkiness. Sadly, few of us had the chance to hear their peculiar, yet gorgeous sound before the album went out of print.
Luckily, for those among us who didn’t try extra hard to find this record before its deletion, Kill Rock Stars reissued Castaways, thereby giving the record buying and downloading public a chance to redeem itself.
Castaways and Cutouts is like no record you’ve ever heard, yet it contains elements of many records in all of our collections. Frontman Colin Meloy bears a strong resemblance to the aforementioned Mangum, albeit with slightly more childlike innocence. In 10 predominantly acoustic guitar-driven songs, Meloy gives us musical history lessons, often accompanied by organ, piano, accordion, pedal steel and theremin.
Album opener “Leslie Ann Levine” is sung from the perspective of a girl “born at nine and dead at noon,” whereas highlight “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” is told through the eyes of three very distinct characters — a soldier, a womanizing Spaniard, and, of course, an architect — all created in the narrators dreams.
But wait, the journey through this indie rock looking glass gets even more peculiar. On track three, the upbeat “July, July,” Meloy sings a They Might Be Giants-worthy tune about a French Canadian bootlegger. And in “A Cautionary Song” the listener is warned to respect his mother because she’s paying the bills with money earned from being prostituted to sailors at night. Hmmm…very strange indeed.
“Odalisque” is the best Bright Eyes song about Turkish prostitutes written by a non-Omaha native…or the only one, for that matter. It makes a perfect centerpiece for the album, as it builds up and swells into a monster of a tune before bleeding into the relatively serene “Cocoon.”
“Grace Cathedral Hill” eschews picaresque fantasy for more personal lyrics about a New Year’s Day spent in San Francisco. The song is absolutely breathtaking in its simplicity and is the best song on the album.
The album closer “California One/ Youth and Beauty Brigade” carries on the California theme in a grand epic medley, wrapping up the album in a major key as Meloy sings “nothing will stand in our way.” The album ends in a way entirely contrary to its beginning, opening with death and finish with rebirth in an almost spiritual conclusion.
As listeners, we couldn’t have asked for a more finely crafted album. And as musicians, The Decemberists must be thrilled that they’ve been given wider distribution and thus, a better chance for us to hear it.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Mojave 3 – Out of Tune
Robyn Hitchcock – Globe of Frogs
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.