Among all the half-assed bands parading around with names stolen from the calendar, there's one that sticks out far above the rest. A beacon, dimly lit, but visible no matter your vantage point. That's the Decemberists. Their relatively reserved approach to songwriting is one that has garnered them accolades all across the indie rock world. Picaresque does nothing, if not continuing in the fine, albeit short tradition that the band has established for themselves.
More than anything else, it begins and ends on the trusty chords of singer Colin Meloy. A voice rooted in British folk, Meloy honed his sound in an alt-country group before breaking away and eventually meeting up with the four other musicians who would form the Decemberists. Unconventional in every sense of the word, the band opts for a much more eclectic songwriting approach. Upright bass, steel guitar, accordion, and piano all weave their way into their sound, and that versatility is something they rely heavily on. Not content with a uniform sound, the tempo and instrumentation vary quite a bit, letting each song develop its own unique identity.
The more upbeat tracks like "The Sporting Life" display Meloy's vocal charm as much as the playful way in which each musician contributes their instrument. The song relies heavily on a foot tap-inducing rhythm section, and some real subtle accordion usage under the bouncily sung delivery, but the most important thing to remember is that Mr. Meloy is the consummate storyteller. The imagery is vivid and the adjectives perfectly descriptive of every single facet in a given situation. This is exemplified by the haunting, "Eli, the Barrow Boy," in which Meloy laments his inability to afford the rich items he desires for his lover, until it becomes too late, and she passes away, and he realizes "I must push my barrow all the day." The sorrow in his voice is absolutely riveting, and you cannot help put picture the scene as the story unfolds in front of you.
"On the Bus Mall" has a similar effect, in the brilliant way in which the story is told by the raspy baritone vocals. The simplistic strumming of the steel guitar and delicate plucking of the bass sets a rich instrumental background, and really enriches the atmosphere of it all. Sprawling and gorgeous, each of the song's six minutes hides something new to discover, and upon that discovery it holds that extra bit of weight it may not have before. Despite the often bleak lyrical ,utlook, the Decemberists cannot always be held down, as the rousing shanty "Mariner's Revenge Song" does attest. The accordion is in full bloom, and the spirit of a high seas adventure is gleefully told. The jaunty track goes through several stages until finally ending by way of some invigorating accordion work.
Musically diverse as the album is, as great as Colin Meloy's vocals sound throughout, at the heart of it all are the terrific stories being told. You're not liable to find a sadder song in your life than "Eli, the Barrow Boy," it's something that will haunt you long after listening; the impact is truly surreal. You're also not liable to find as completely feeling of an indie rock record as this for quite a while. It's possibly the best I've heard since Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Only three full-lengths into their career, the Decemberists have stumbled upon the perfect formula for success; this one will be hard to top.