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[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]

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 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]

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 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
»Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
»Robyn
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Lisbon
Fat Possum
Decemberists
The Tain
Acuarela Records

Rating: NR/10 ?


October 1, 2004
The first thing that most people want cleared up when I mention this release is, of course, what exactly at tain is. To that I reply that it is generally a type of wafer-thin tin plate, such as one might have found in the 19th and 20th century. Of course in other circles tain is the thin, flaky tinfoil used as a backing for mirrors (the etymology of the word is French, an alteration of étain, which of course means tin). Either way, its basically something shiny and tin-based.

After explaining the origins of the word, I generally ask whomever it is that I am speaking with to strike that information in regards to the Decemberists' latest release. The Tain is Colin Meloy's conceptual folk-metal homage to "Tain Bo Cuailinge", a recounting of the Cattle Raid of Cooley from the Ulster Cycle by the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella (I know what you're thinking, but there is no relation). As that fabled story goes, for a further bit of background, two ancient Kings threw their armies into a hellacious battle for some sort of bright and shiny bull. That's right, a bull. Apparently the steer was quite large and worthy of such a battle. And did I mention the part about Cú Chulainn, a lone young warrior who Ulster single-handedly after his comrades were rendered mute, victims of a curse set by the evil Bull-hungry Queen Medb? I wouldn't want to leave that part out, because that's the sort of story that makes a perfect Decemberists song.

The Tain of the Decemberists is a short release - only 18 minutes - but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in ambition. The release is a solitary track, running the whole 18 minutes, that is broken up into five sections to loosely reflect the "Tain Bo Cuailinge" which it represents. Did I say it was ambitious? Good, because it is.

The opening pair of sections will dash any preconceptions you might have held about the Decemberists. Meloy and company unwaveringly meld their romantic fixation on the 1800s with the ghosts of their own musical pasts, culling the sludgy guitars of Black Sabbath and pairing them with the beautiful and powerful organ that we know so well from their previous releases. The result is nothing if not completely disarming. I generally chill with Decemberists when I'm in the mood to lament the mistakes of mine and other lives, but the first two sections of The Tain are perfect as a soundtrack for making additional and more heinous mistakes. I'll leave that open to interpretation.

The Tain's middle section eases up on the fierceness in favor of the band's tried and true sound. As a dole, anguished bass line careens below decks Meloy unfurls his magic historical prose - "From the lee of the wall/he comes in chain and chariot/and all his eunuchs in thrall/can scarce lift his line and lariat" - to tell the tale of Cú Chulainn being attacked by one of the King's mongrel hounds. Meloy lazily strums his guitar (still heavily distorted) in time with his verse, the band eventually climaxing in a beautiful chorus of "Here come loose the hound/to blow me down".

In Part IV, The Tain's most chaotic musical section, Rachel Blumberg assumes the lead vocals, accompanied by light piano melodies, the Decemberists' cherished accordion (whose appearance seems to be a novelty if anything) and a cacophony of found sounds and random instruments. The dense collage winds up like a swirling big top circus tent, clanking and squawking, before collapsing suddenly, in the classic comedic tone the Decemberists have honed, back into Blumberg's soft wintry whisper and accompanying piano. The whole carnival winds up one more time for a few spins of the carousel before fading out under the weight of a colonial-styled somber drum beat, Meloy's cue to retake the stern.

In Part V, with their Captain at the helm, the Decemberists steer back into the choppy waters first presented in Part I. Electric guitars rev wildly and the full band kicks in intermittently, alternating with the somber vocals of Meloy and the powerful strumming of an upright bass.

Played on repeat, The Tain circles wildly, magically, a sonic Oroboros. It opens gently with Meloy's somber guitar plucking, quickly erupts into a distorted, metal-tinged carnival ride that only the Decemberists could conjure up, then proceeds to rollick and romp through the band's signature colonial folk/punk. The Tain is ambitious, it's irregular, it's off the beaten path and it's a great song. If only there were about five more of them on the disc, I'd be satisfied.

Reviewed by Clifton Gates
Currently sleeping on beaches in Costa Rica, Clifton Gates is an occasional contributor, editor, idea springboard and moral crutch to LAS magazine.

See other reviews by Clifton Gates

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