The danger in a project like the Decemberists' -- basically, the Portland band plays intellectual sea chanteys about topics both grim (unrequited love) and grimmer (murder by whale) -- is the inclination toward the half-assed. In a post-Elephant 6 era in which gear is as affordable as it's ever been, too many indie bands muck up their mediocre guitar/bass/drums setup with barely considered layers of strings/vibes/horns, hoping that we'll be wowed by the spectacle alone.
Thankfully, very little of Picaresque, the Decemberists' third full-length, sounds half-assed. Produced by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, the album is rich with lovingly detailed melodies. Front-man Colin Meloy sings with grad-student warmth, and the band's sax solos and accordion wheeze feel homey and lived-in, not dashed-off and lazy. If the Decemberists don't rock as hard here as they have on-stage over the past year or so, they've made up for it with an articulate, nuanced roll. Meloy's stories too usually merit the instrumental extravagance: In "Sixteen Military Wives," he removes himself from the 19th Century to cast a skeptical eye toward modern times, and in "The Sporting Life," he performs an autopsy on team spirit over a jaunty gallop.
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