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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 3 (The Constantines – The Decemberists)

with 5 comments

It’s probably too early to make bold predictions, but I may actually finish this in a somewhat timely manner this year.

The Constantines – Kensington Heights
Being a fan of the Constantines’ last two albums, Shine a Light and Tournament of Hearts, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from them, barring any major innovations.  They’ve carved out a fairly unusual niche that embraces, with equal fervor, Springsteenian working man anthemics and quirky rhythms and noisy guitars that owe more to Fugazi or Jawbox.  There’s not much new to detail on Kensington Heights. The band continues the trend it began on Tournament by leaning more heavily on their roots-rock influences on tracks like “New King,” but they always keep one foot on the distortion pedal.

Elvis Costello and the Imposters – Momofuku
Sometime last year, Elvis Costello said something to the effect that he wouldn’t be releasing any new albums.  His rationale had something to do with the album ceasing to be a viable medium in the age of illegal downloads, etc.  It was hard to take too seriously, because, as most longtime fans know, the guy’s a workaholic.  Since that announcement, he’s toured with the Police, appeared (with Imposters and Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve) with various orchestras throughout the world, pitched in on Jenny Lewis’s second solo album, hosted his own fantastic interview show on the Sundance Channel,  and, naturally, released an album.

Still, given his stance, it’s hard not to read some tentativeness into Momofuku, and it definitely doesn’t seem like coincidence that the best, snarkiest cut is “No Hiding Place,” which begins the album with the Web-critical lines, “In the not-very-distant future when everything will be free/there won’t be any cute secrets, let alone any novelty.”

None of the songs bombs outright, but Momofuku comes across as a tad underwritten and over-performed, especially on “Turpentine,” which features a classic Costello chorus, but goes on too long and suffers from a surplus of drums (provided by possibly the first father-daughter rock drum duo, Pete and  Tennessee Thomas).

So, overall, I’m conflicted.  As far as straight-up Costello rock-pop albums go, it’s the best since When I Was Cruel, but honestly there hasn’t been that much competition since then.  I wish he’d crank out another staggeringly good rocker with the Imposters, but these days, it seems he’s at his best with full-on writing collaborations, like those done with Allen Toussaint and Burt Bacharach (which are amazing and, sadly, all-too-unheard).  This one, unfortunately, is somewhere in the small good-but-not-great pile with Punch the Clock.

Crooked Fingers – Forfeit/Fortune
Not a lot to say here (although it’s probably the first potentially NSFW album cover in the Marathon).  Forfeit/Fortune‘s a decent, nicely varied collection of pop songs, but the high points don’t quite measure up to those of 2005’s Dignity and Shame.  Just as that album’s best track, “Call to Love,” was a duet between Archer’s frontman Eric Bachmann and Lara Meyerratken, though, this album’s is “Your Control,” a duet between Bachmann and the increasingly-infallible Neko Case.

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Long equally admired and dismissed as the quintessential heart-on-sleeve geeky indie pop band, Death Cab has never been particularly known for bringing the house down in the volume department.  This is probably a little unfair, since plenty of their albums have featured formidable rockers like “We Look Like Giants” and “We Laugh Indoors,” but nearly all were undercut by trebly, spiky guitars and modest production.

Narrow Stairs is clearly their attempt at addressing this.  If not their best collection of songs, it’s their most dynamic.  Starting with the impressive buildup at the end of Kerouac-fixated opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and the subsequent four-minute instrumental build of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” it becomes clear that Plans, the band’s tentative first step into the budgets that a major label deal can offer, was just a warmup.  At least at first, Narrow Stairs comes off like a vast, vast album.  The guitars sound muscular, the bass throbs, and the drums sound better than they ever have before.  Nowhere is this more evident than on “Cath…,” which hews closest to what might be thought of as the band’s signature style – a mid-tempo ballad with just slightly unconventional rhythms and classic pop changes.  But when compared to songs of its ilk on The Photo Album or We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes, it sounds slick and immense in the best possible way.

The new rockist tendencies take a dip on the slow shuffle “Talking Bird” and stay submerged on the band’s Brian Wilson move “You Can Do Better Than Me,” and two decent ballads, but come back strong on the terrific “Long Division” (BTW, I now count three songs that use this title as a math/relationship pun –  if anyone can find more, let me know).

So I’ve written a lot about the instrumentation and the production – how are the songs?  Pretty good.  I like Ben Gibbard best when he’s in metaphysical poet mode, using gloveboxes to talk about lost loves, wishing the world was flat so he could travel by folding a map, his frozen teeth clicking like a Morse code sent from himself to himself, etc.  His metaphors have gotten a little less wild in the last couple releases, and he’s starting to repeat himself (“Cath…” is the latest in a line of songs about questionable marriages, “Your New Twin Sized Bed,” like “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” on Plans, uses the bed as a central metaphor for relationship failure).  Still, if his lyrics have gotten a tad more straightforward (which is sort of a negative), so has the band’s music (which is sort of a positive), and it’s a fair trade-off.

The Decemberists – Always The Bridesmaid EPs
First, I have to point out that these guys have some friggin’ nerve stealing their title from early 00’s Milwaukee band, Dimes (sure, they changed the “a” to a “the,” but Colin Meloy can’t fool me).  I suggest that the Decemberists make some arrangements for payment ASAP.  Lawyers will be contacted.

These are just a few fun songs that Meloy and company released, seemingly as a detour, before the ambitious concept album they’re unleashing early next year.  I suspect this will be the reverse of what happened several years ago when the weird little concept EP The Tain came out in advance of the band’s more diverse and mostly pop-oriented Picaresque.  In any case, these are the Decemberists at their lightest, serenading compromised spy Valerie Plame, covering the Velvet Underground’s sweetest song “I’m Sticking with You,” and composing an ode to New England (which I initially thought was going to be the Jonathan Richman song of a similar title – it’s not).  It’s a cheap download, and, if I’m right about the potentially dense and heavy nature of their upcoming album, you’ll probably want it as a palate-cleanser.


Written by Dave

December 14, 2008 at 10:04 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Dig Lazarus, Dig! aside, I haven’t heard any of the albums you’ve reviewed, but I’m just commenting to let you know that I am indeed reading.

    Patrick Ripoll

    December 15, 2008 at 11:57 am

  2. Cool! The whole exercise was starting to feel even more narcissistic than it probably already is.


    December 15, 2008 at 12:04 pm

  3. I’m reading this, too, although there are some albums on here I own but haven’t listened to all the way through, like the Constantines and the Cave and the Death Cab. I hope to remedy this. I’ll agree with you on the Bon Iver — it was one of my favorites of the year — and I was surprised that Black Kids wasn’t on your list. You keep writing; I’ll keep reading and trying to play catch up.


    December 15, 2008 at 4:24 pm

  4. Never picked up Black Kids, since I’d heard that the best stuff was already on last year’s EP.


    December 16, 2008 at 1:13 pm

  5. I’m reading as well, though at this point I’m so far out of the music loop you might as well be writing in sanskrit.

    I DID just re-listen to “Always A Bridesmaid” the other day – solid, solid stuff.


    December 16, 2008 at 11:51 pm

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