The Decemberists – The Tain EP

The Decemberists
The Tain EP

With their latest recording, the single-track EP The Tain, The Decemberists have brought to market a stylistic roller-coaster ride divided into five parts over 18 minutes. It’s an original approach toward recording that frequently rewards listeners. “Part I,” just over two minutes long, proceeds with mostly unaffected vocals and guitars that somehow recall Jellyfish in its early 90s heyday. Punchy guitars segue between the first two parts, and “Part II” is much stronger than its predecessor. With Colin Meloy’s snotty voice sending declaratory lyrics in your face much like Brian Molko on Placebo albums, Rachel Blumberg pounds her drums and raises the tension. All five Decemberists collaborate vocally with Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie on the chorus, recalling some of Pink Floyd’s moments on The Wall.

The lyrics for The Tain were inspired by the Irish story, “Tain Bo Cualnge,” about the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The texts are visually stimulating and instant scene-setters, shifting surreally across centuries and characters. “Part III” is less dense and more interesting than the earlier parts of the EP, and the chorus singing on it is beautiful. The feminine voices have a raised presence, and the stringed instruments come to the fore. Meloy’s words pour out mournfully, slowly, and “Part III” brings to mind some mid-90s alternative rock at half-speed. After five minutes of “Part III,” Blumberg intimately swallows the microphone with her whispery words for “Part IV.” Her percussion and Jenny Conlee’s sprightly accordion give the music a circus feeling. Imagine a snippet of street performers in medieval France and you’ve envisioned the vivid highlights of “Part IV.” The Tain wraps up with Meloy’s pause-and-yell singing on “Part V,” which has a melody very similar to that of “Part I.”

The lyrics are colorful, amusing, and occasionally bewildering throughout the entire track, and the instrumental aspects are consistently interesting. Still, Meloy’s singing could definitely be more appealing and less tired at the beginning and end of the 18 minute EP, though it’s not a significant blemish on The Tain. This is a creation that’s hard to classify but relatively easy to enjoy, though it would have been fascinating to hear a live recording of the musical novella by The Decemberists as a second track. Perhaps that joy will come through future recordings.