The Decemberists

The Tain EP

(Hush/Jealous Butcher; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 9 March 2003

Ambition can be a dangerous thing. Prolificacy is one thing; since 2001, the Decemberists have recorded and released two full length albums and, including this new mini concept album, two EPs worth of original material, none of which retread a similar style in any significant way. But the kind of ambition that has driven Decemberists’ frontman and songwriter Colin Meloy to write period pieces about loving soldiers or first person accounts of chimney sweeps and ghosts, the kind that drives him now, with his homely crew in tact, to release an epic prog-rock conceptualization of Irish mythology…well, like I said, that can be a dangerous thing.

Recorded in four intensive days in the studio by Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla, The Tain is a musical companion to Meloy’s interpretation of the Irish myth translated from the original "Tain Bo Cuailnge" (literally translating to "Cattle-Raid of Cooley"). I’ll save you the lengthy explanation since a) you can probably read all about it elsewhere, b) I’m not about to start reviewing it and c) my knowledge of it is limited to what I’ve read since first hearing this EP; I don’t want to join the legion of experts that will probably arise in the wake of its release. Very roughly, it surrounds the myth of a battle that occurs during an attempted cattle raid, and a seventeen year old (Cúchulainn, supposed offspring of the sun god) is required to defend his side due to a curse that is inflicting the inhabitants of his province of Ulster.

But you probably aren’t reading this for a run-through of Irish mythology and, well, I’m not the person to pretend to he can give it. The Tain certainly has a context in which its lyrical story is based and its a strong part of what makes the EP work, but the musical passages are what surprise the most and make the EP such an exciting chapter in the Decemberists’ evolution. The EP opens with Meloy, finding himself at home with lines like "you’re a fickle little twister, are you sweet on your sister," and a desolate acoustic line that quickly bursts open into an Iron Butterfly-meets-latter day Pink Floyd chorus slightly reminiscent of Castaways‘ centerpiece, "Odalisque." The two fluctuate before breaking out of its repetitious spell, increasingly sounding like an upbeat "Odalisque" with monk-like background harmonies, a drum fill straight from the opening of MBV’s "Only Shallow" (right about 3:31) and a load of atmospheric organ runs that find a new and welcome prominence in the mix.

It then chillingly fades into what sounds like an out-take from the second half of Castaways—think "Grace Cathedral Hill" with hints of "Gymnast, High Above the Ground," tied together with a sparse, stirring arrangement consisting of cello, lap steel guitar and a breezy, hymnal chorus vocal harmony. It makes way for a circus-like section, propelled for the most part by cello, piano, accordion, and organ and sung by drummer/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Blumberg, who also regularly moonlights in the band Norfolk & Western. Her vocal contribution sounds much better than her bit-part on "The Chimbley Sweep," and Melody’s distant harmonies help construct the odd atmosphere surrounding its theatrical instrumentation.

It ushers in a marching drum beat, again calling to attention the battle stirring underneath, takes over and Meloy’s usual overemphasized mannerisms (making "runs" sound more like "ruh-ooo-uns") once again pick up the tempo before kicking into another explosive chorus heavily occupied by steady organ notes and distorted guitar. It eventually branches into variations of the EP’s opening riff before leading into its final, celebratory chorus. "Hush now darling,
don’t you cry," Meloy exclaims over the celebratory quality of the music; "your reward’s in the sweet by-and-by." The section is short—perhaps a little too short considering how fantastic it sounds and the uplifting quality it introduces, but there’s always something to be said for leaving us wanting more at the end of an eighteen minute track. It ends with a reprise of the introductory theme in reverse, opening with the full-band riff and then decomposing into the lone acoustic line and Meloy’s vocals, now sounding worn and distant, bringing the EP and its lyrical tale full circle.

The Tain sounds like a natural progression for the group, both in terms of their musical strengths and Meloy’s lyrical prowess, which has, for better or worse, really made the group what they are. Though it takes several surprising turns (the dark, prog-rock feel of the first section or carnival-esque sideshow piece that Rachel sings over, for instance), most of the sections can be traced back through their full lengths, finding a solid middle ground between the two while introducing enough new elements to justify its release as more than just an exercise in pretension Lyrically, it’s obviously a little more demanding than any of their earlier projects if purely due to the EP’s nature, but certainly follows in the footsteps of his trademark image-rich, quirky storytelling. After Her Majesty the Decemberists, it was pretty clear that Meloy would be just as likely to dust off 17th century cockney on the next release, so an EP so loaded with successful ambition can only reaffirm the Decemberists as one of the more promising indie acts recording right now.