The Decemberists

Castaways & Cutouts

(Hush/Kill Rock Stars; 2002)

By Scott Reid | 25 December 2002

Jeff Mangum is an asshole.

The guy gives us an album like In The Aeroplane Over the Sea and then pulls a Jimmy Hoffa, only to return with field recordings and minor roles in various e6 bands before it claimed it wad dead to distance itself from Apples in Stereo’s recent material, making it extremely unclear if he’d ever follow up his 1998 masterwork. Well hey that’s fine and all Jeff, and it’s not like we didn’t appreciate the fact that you made the album and, hey, it’s up to you if you don’t feel like doing a follow-up, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling pissed. You turn into a post-Surf’s Up Brian Wilson and yet the Apples get to continually churn out albums? “No fair.” Hey look! There’s Jeff now:

What the fuck is he doing? Who knows, and in his absence, few albums have stepped up to the plate with the same kind of delicious singer songwriter/psychedelic pop that In The Aeroplane Over the Sea had left us craving; Circulatory System was damn fine, of course, but lacked the vocal presence of Mangum and its monotonous production and songwriting took away from its several great moments (“Forever,” for instance). Mountain Goats? Not nearly psychedelic enough and his voice does kind of sound like Kermit the Frog, albeit in a lovely, charming way.

So anyway, this is a Decemberists review and spending two paragraphs on a band they aren’t in any way connected to may seem a bit much. Why am I using this review as the outlet for my love and frustration of Jeff Mangum? Because Castaways and Cutouts is perhaps the finest album of its kind since Mangum last chose to unleash his talents to the delight of pale-faced indie geeks everywhere, learning “Two Headed Boy” on our acoustic guitars and finally believing that obnoxiously loud singing was the way to go. “Oh Comely” only confirmed this suspicion.

This isn’t to say that Castaways and Cutouts is better, or even on par, with Aeroplane. To be honest, it doesn’t even really sound that much like it, but certainly both share a sense of celebratory pop mixed with distinctive voices (Meloy’s voice is one of the reason the album works so well and sounds like a beautiful mixture of John Vanderslice, John Darnielle, Stuart Murdoch and, yes, at times, Mangum) from an erratic front man, quirky storytelling and an excellent knack for writing a simple, yet affective, melody. Some songs, more than others, bring to mind NMH (particularly “Leslie Anne Levine” and “A Cautionary Song”) or Mountain Goats (“Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect”), but the diversity of this full length is what ultimately makes it so excellent—familiar sounds and styles aside, Castaways and Cutouts is an absolutely addictive and lovely album, revealing its many worthwhile moments slowly, saving the absolute best for the last. Album closer “California One Youth and Beauty Brigade” slowly builds through its two sections in just under ten minutes, unleashing not one, but two superb pop songs with ease. The album, simply put, works on so many levels at once or that it’s sometimes just overwhelming and these moments, more often than not, make up for some of the album’s few lulls (“Cocoon,” “Clementine”).

Of course, when you hear a record as great as Castaways, you can’t help but just want more. Thankfully, Hush also recently re-released their debut E.P, Five Songs, with an extra song for those hungry for even more Decemberists material. Though certainly not as strong or varied as the full length, a few of the tracks (“Shiny,” “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” and “I Don’t Mind”) are definitely worth the trouble of tracking it down. Nothing on the E.P. can really stand up to the fleshed out beauty of the songs that would came after them, but nothing on here is in any way bad. It actually serves to compliment the full length rather nicely, as it shows how their sound has greatly developed; on its own, however, its could stand as a slightly underwhelming introduction to a band that has so much more to offer.

And, if both of these weren’t enough, they plan to have a new album due out in September. Hey Jeff, you listening to this? It’s called being “prolific.” I just think it’s about time a guy that doesn’t even record anymore finally got some real competition.