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New Music

By Akash Goel, William B. Higgins, Nathaniel A. Smith, and Scoop A. Wasserstein, Crimson Staff Writerss

The Decemberists

Her Majesty The Decemberists

(Kill Rock Stars)

Brigands seemed to be all the rage in the first half of 2003, between Pirates of the Caribbean and the Decemberists’ first album. Even without Jack Sparrow’s swagger, Castaways and Cutouts won plenty of critical acclaim for its campfire-history trappings—pristine folk arrangements, overwrought theatrics, elaborate lyrics about ghosts and buccaneers.

Her Majesty The Decemberists is a worthy follow-up on all counts. The band manages to gently expand its repertoire while retaining everything that made Castaways so endearing. Pre-Marxist revolutionary Colin Meloy is still penning dime-novel tales about dissolute seamen, WWI doughboys, a blindfolded “Jewess” and a rascally “chimbley sweep.” The songs verge on Gothic, but only in a literary sense—driven by nostalgia, they sound as if the Decemberists have never heard anything recorded after 1975, let alone a Cure record.

This time around, the drunk Edwardian nightmares unfold over more varied musical backdrops, with the cheery organs and major chords of Castaways’ “July, July!” taking over much of the new album. For all their charm, Meloy’s dirty little stories wouldn’t be much use to indie rock if they didn’t make good songs, and Her Majesty is full of those. The poisonous smirk of “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” the rustic daze of “As I Rise” and the surprisingly straightforward “Billy Liar” all prove that the Decemberists have considerable range. Meloy and his bandmates might have been born a few centuries too late, but we’re lucky to have these faux-Luddites chewing the scenery today.

—Simon W. Vozick-Levinson

Grand Buffet

Cigarette Beach

(No label)

Grand Buffet would be fairly easy to dismiss if they hailed from anywhere other than Pittsburgh. After all, non sequitur rapping over cheesy beats is often the province of poseurs and hipsters, but the duo’s humble Rust Belt origins attest to a refreshingly earnest approach. On their third independently-released album, the lyrical gimmicks are nothing if not inventive—especially when rapping about early-bird buffet beatdowns on “The Old Folk Smashers.” Though neither Grape-a-Don nor Lord Grunge can turn a phrase as deftly as fellow bizarro MC Paul Barman, they can still coax a smile and a nod of the head—Batman, Thai food and Applebee’s are all namechecked in just the first two tracks. Grand Buffet’s most distinctive beats are also their most effective ones, from the minimalist thump of “Barbecue Gloves” to the piercingly deep bass of “Intruder Excluder” and “Nate Kukla’s History of Lemonade.”

If Cigarette Beach seems unsatisfying at times, it’s because the album fails to truly capture the off-the-cuff wit and sheer lunacy of the duo’s live performances. With most of the tracks simply lurching into the next, Grape-a-Don never gets the chance to fully develop his loose cannon personality. What’s more, the absurd shout-along choruses of early Grand Buffet favorites like “Candy Bars” and “You’re on Fire” have largely been replaced with tedious sing-alongs. But even if the album doesn’t always do justice to the act, it should be more than enough to expand their audience for their next burst of deranged brilliance. They’re here, they’re weird, and they’re making basement hip-hop with uncommon glee.

—Thomas J. Clarke

Various Artists

Idol Tryouts

(Ghostly International)

A year after making the best and last word on electroclash—Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau—upstart Ann Arbor label Ghostly International has released the year’s finest label compilation, its first full-length showcase.

At its heart, Idol Tryouts is a superlative mixtape, bereft of filler and filled with killer tunes, all of which make perfect sense next to each other and fashion a satisfying whole. But it’s also a revelation that makes an irresistible case for the label’s unique aesthetics. The disc’s painstaking curation is a template for future movements—casual experiments, pristine dancefloor bombs.

Dabrye’s “Making It Pay” sets the stage in shades of grey, a slice of abstract hip-hop whose pulverizing bassline and stainless snares sound more computerized than crunk. But soon the album’s pulled in opposite directions by tracks like Charles Manier’s “At The Bottle” (whose post-Kraftwerk synths and four-on-the-floor thump sound made for anime dancefloors) and a Telefon Tel Aviv rework of Midwest Product’s “A Genuine Display.” The latter’s rainy fragility is the compilation’s wildcard, showing that indie introspection can paint hip-hop and tech-house rhythms as beautifully as ambient did in the early 90s.

Most poignant is Dykehouse’s “Wire” cover, which resurrects “My Bloody Valentine” but somehow makes the guitars even more amorphous and suffocating. The track’s shoegazer leanings sound out of place amidst the album’s bloops and beats at first, but they reflect the slowly, surely dissolving boundaries in marginal music.

—Ryan J. Kuo

My Morning Jacket

It Still Moves


From the opening of It Still Moves, the folk tale-named Jim James sounds like he’s crooning out of the window of a dusty Cadillac, horns tied to the overheating hood.

Scratch that—picture instead a shiny tour bus with Dave Matthews’ name emblazoned on the grill. After years spent floating around the Midwest, My Morning Jacket have finally graduated to the big leagues—to Matthews’ BMG imprint to be exact—and It Still Moves is their brand new ride.

The Kentucky quintet’s foray onto the empty alt-country road has never been brighter, more decisive or had more reverb. Where Tennessee Fire drunkenly laid out maps and 2001’s beautiful At Dawn sounded the ignition, the new album pulls out all the stops along the 72-minute path. The beer-stained pool halls and one-night plans of James’ hitchhiker poetry all point to a Neil Young education, while his cyclic, hypnotizing voice (falling between that of early Young and a drunken Wayne Coyne) is as seductive as always. As James himself describes it: “Soft and warm all the time, make you want it over and over / Strong on the horizon, but ends up bein’ really so sweet.”

That emotional range also belongs to the band, who channel Allman (“Easy Morning Rebel”) and Ozzy (“Run Thru”) with powerful grace. Recorded in the same farmhouse that made previous albums spacious and spacey, the major label production stays true to the quartet’s down-home sound. There may be a moral here about how “selling out” isn’t so bad after all, but the real lesson is about country music—well, ’tain’t so bad either.

—Alex L. Pasternack

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