Thursday, July 19, 2007

a week in EPs day #4: the decemberists - the tain

i first found out about the tain completely by accident, because i was in a literature class about j.r.r. tolkien (yes, THAT tolkien), and we were investigating his influences, which included norse myths, beowulf, and an 8th century irish epic entitled the tain. because i wasn't a very diligent student, i didn't actually read the tain, and, as a result, i can't tell you if the decemberists' version is at all like the original (though one would guess not very much, since meloy's lyrics reference motorcades, among other modern amenities). anyway, i was googling the epic, to find some clues as to what the story was about (since i couldn't be bothered to read it), when, lo and behold, i came upon an EP by the decemberists. this was in 2006, so the crane wife had yet to be unleashed upon the world, and i was still very much in love with picaresque. what a shock it was to me, then, to hear the decemberists' own epic, with a storyline far more varied than that of "the bagman's gambit" or, even, "the mariner's revenge song." the 18 minutes of the tain are divided into five parts, appropriately (if unimaginatively) named pt. I, pt. II, pt. III, pt. IV, and pt. V. it was even more shocking to learn that the tain had been recorded and released before picaresque, as the tain is probably the most sophisticated and mature piece of songwriting meloy & co. have ever pulled off.

the work opens with a spare, finger-picked guitar line, almost lecherous in intent, foreshadowed by the imperfect letters and foreboding clouds on the cover. these beginning notes are bent to the point of being crooked, reverberating within the guitar's soundbox. throughout the song, meloy inhabits different characters, from a (undoubtedly) wizened old crone at the start (and end) of the album, to a husband, a captain, a soldier, and a mother, in what pitchfork calls a relatively faithful reinterpretation of the tain bo cuilange, the work's original name in irish. like i said, i'm not here to debate that point - what i am here to do is tell you why this EP kicks some serious fucking ass. which, in case you were wondering, it definitely does. there is melodrama here that is more pronounced than in any other decemberists song, before or since, with the notes so spaced and rickety that one can nearly see the crone limping with one hand on her cane, scolding in a eerily high voice that seems closer to a shriek, meloy's tenor notwithstanding. the tain also features one of the few naughty words in the decemberists' catalog - in pt. I, the meloy crone talks of incest (as far as i can make out), how "your sister" has "your cock in her kisser" - suggestive words for such a pg rated band. pt. I is over almost before you notice - it's only two verses, each with its own musical postlude, before it seamlessly segues into pt. II. seamless though the transition is, it doesn't take long to realize that there is something rotten in the state of ireland. the music shifts from a focused, creeping evil that sends shivers up your spine to a harder, rockier groove with a pronounced guitar line, that nearly has a chorus. jenny conlee adds some simply electrifying organ parts to complement meloy's dismal lyrics, which (i think) are about conscription. the music has a much steadier rhythm, almost like a military march, yet the minor key suggests that all the conscripts are riddled with fear, and are about to break ranks.

even if the piece was not deliberately and noticeably divided into five parts, with liner notes and such, the decemberists have not made much of an attempt to connect each of the five songs in any sense beyond the transition from one to another. a simple change in the key signature and fade take us from pt. II to pt. III, but the necessity for connectivity is not great - that's why the divisions are obvious. the energy of the first two parts quickly fades and is replaced by a deliberate fear that connotes a watching soldier, stock still, as the enemy unlooses their super weapon, as his mind begins to contemplate his own death. nate query uses a bow for his bass in the section, adding further melancholy and distance to this section, as meloy softens his own sharp voice, lending their blunt edges to the overall feeling of stunned silence, of shock, as even the chaplain surrenders himself to the sword of the enemy.

pt. IV is the evening after the battle, the accordion-led shanty of the widows that implies more theft than bereft, as rachel blumberg, the pre-john moen drummer, whispers lyrics of longing and of ghosts on their march to the afterlife. the irreverence of her lines is echoed in the interlude between the verses, a raucous, bilge-swilling shanty that would be better suited to a rolling deck that a battlefield, speckled with chromatic scales and the clanking of tin cans. on the other hand, it could hint at the leisure these ghosts will enjoy, now that their number has been called, and the song ends ambiguously, as if refusing to answer this question. a quiet roll on the snare haunts the silence between pts. IV and V, before meloy enters, sotto voce. this part of the tain is marked by sharp dynamic shifts, between the near-silence of meloy, with only the snare for company, and the sharp organ/guitar led parts interspersed between. with less than two minutes left in the epic, the decemberists finally all join together for some good old fashioned fun - heavy on the harmonies, gentle acoustic strumming, you know the drill. but just as you think all is well, they return to the treacherous melody of pt. I, and the voice of the crone. s/he sings us out, accompanied only by the faintest of guitar pickings, as we "go wandering home."

varied and dynamic, the tain represents the most diverse and disciplined work in the decemberists' catalog, a work that is unlikely to be equaled. looking at their chronology, it seems surprising that they didn't learn any lessons from the tain for picaresque, but the crane wife at least has "the island" - a direct descendant of this, their first lengthy epic. as it is, the tain is too good to hope for a reprisal - i prefer to think of it as a brief, bright spark in the decemberists universe. with it clocking in at 18:35, live performances of the tain are few and far between, but, luckily, there was one quite recently, when the decemberists performed with the l.a. philharmonic. i've posted it below. you can download the rest of the show here, and get all your decemberists merchandise here and here.

the decemberists - "the tain," live at the hollywood bowl, 7/7/2007

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