The Decemberists: A New ‘Hazard’
Every once in a while it’s fun to just listen to a band that prides itself on making cute little songs with catchy little chords and quaint little lyrics. For the majority of this decade, The Decemberists have been a perfect outfit for that quick fix. The lyrics have often been quirky, but for the most part, its songs have been littered with infectious hooks that have listeners bouncing off the walls. It seems the band perfected its craft with 2005’s excellent “Picaresque,” packing every song with gorgeous melodies. Everything was peachy with The Decemberists; frontman Colin Meloy would jab back and forth with Stephen Colbert and everyone would chuckle that happy days are here again.
And then came “The Hazards of Love,” and the laughter stopped.
Gone are the hooks and the easygoing lyrics. Basic song structure is sacrificed for an hour-long story most fans of the band could see coming from a mile away. Sure, name-dropping a specific song from an album isn’t always the cool thing to do, but hell, it’s the natural thing to do. That’s practically impossible here.
“The Hazards of Love” can only be appreciated as a whole, and not for its instrumentation, but for its narration. But let’s face it, this band was never really known for capturing you with exceptionally original lyrics, and it never will.
Meloy’s supporting cast behind the mics is pretty exceptional, however, consisting of indie front women Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). Meloy mainly plays William, Stark plays William’s lover, Margaret, and Worden plays the main villain, the forest queen. But the problem doesn’t lie with who is singing, but rather the dry music being set behind the vocals.
In “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)” and “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All),” Margaret and William pine for each other while the rest of the band sleepwalks. The boring cycle forces the audience to overanalyze lyrics whose extravagant symbolism creates little interest in the first place. Worden’s evil character, the forest queen, is introduced by an initially interesting guitar riff and has a song with heavy chords that fanboys might call metal, but all in all, her musical backing is also tedious.
Meloy takes a break from being the hero to being the villain in “The Rake Song,” a thumping detour into the life of Margaret’s kidnapper. This song is the closest thing to a traditional Decemberists track on here, with its decent build-up and somewhat catchy lyrics. Even then, it’s still caught up in a monotonous repetition. The songs following simply capture a part of the story, including William’s hopeful crossing of a dangerous river and the Rake’s dead children haunting him. Every song is paced by where it is in the story, with the narration taking center stage.
So the story has to be astonishing, right? Not so much. The story happens in a few steps: boy loves girl, girl gets pregnant, queen is jealous of girl, has girl kidnapped by an immoral deviant, boy goes after girl. The ease of the story would be fine if the actual instrumentation was worthwhile. Instead, the intrigue is supposed to be buried in deciphering excessive language used throughout the album, while the music backing it is generic and lackluster.
Meloy’s attempt at storytelling is admirable. His band has never been known to take considerable risks, and this album is definitely one of those. The story isn’t difficult to follow, and at times, the music gives you a feel for the events. But this album just feels like a musical without the visuals rather than an album.
The idea of giving the audience a feel for the characters through music is lost in the music’s lack of feeling. The instant gratification of The Decemberists is gone and fans now have to make sense of lyrics like “the prettiest whistles won’t wrestle the thistles undone.” All the gimmicks have finally caught up with the band, leaving an admirable attempt far short of the desired result.
Blue October — “Approaching Normal”
By Neil Thakor
After major success with the single “Hate Me” from its debut album “Foiled,” Blue October tests out new styles and sounds on its new album “Approaching Normal.” While the band is headed in the right direction, “Approaching Normal” lacks the vocal talent needed to truly become a hit.
The album shows a lot of potential for Blue October to become a successful mainstream band. At the same time, there are many flaws that outweigh the potential talent on this album.
The album starts off relatively well with a melancholy track called “Weight of the World.” The track is one of the better songs on the album because of lead singer Justin Furstenfeld’s phenomenal vocals, which are absent on the rest of the album, and a low guitar riff that complements the vocals and allows them to stand out. However, while the track may be a solid one, it is far from exceptional as it becomes dull toward the end because of a lack of guitar variations.
The album reaches an unfortunate and premature peak with the next couple of tracks. While the second and third tracks may be the best tracks on the album, it is disconcerting that the album runs out of its spark by the third track.
“Say It” shows the band moving to a more traditional style of pop-rock without losing the originality the band is most known for. The only major flaw in the track is the chorus lyrics, which Furstenfeld belts out unimaginatively: “I don’t want to hear you say say say say say say say it”. Repetition is good, yet it is hard to do at a fast pace because the lyrics often become slurred and lose their impact. However aside from the lackluster chorus, the track is a strong one.
The best song on “Approaching Normal” is the albums’s first single, “Dirt Room.” Ironically enough, this is the track that most closely approaches a typical rock ballad. Everything about this track is solid; the chorus is incredibly catchy and the bass lines and guitar riffs complement each other.
However, best of all, Furstenfeld delivers his best vocal performance on the album. The track is upbeat, yet at the same time manages to avoid clashing with the vocals. This track has the potential to be successful; it would be surprising if it is not a hit.
While the first three tracks show talent and innovation, the rest of the album doesn’t follow suit, even though they experiment with new styles, new tempos and even crazy track names such as “Kangaroo Cry.” Despite the originality, one flaw that remains constant is the lack of consistency in the vocal performance.
On the majority of the album’s tracks, with the exception of a few, the vocals tend to be too soft to really stick out. The epitome of the vocal problems on “Approaching Normal” is in “Blue Skies” where Furstenfeld’s jaded vocals are drowned out, though not by an upbeat guitar or bass line.
“Blue Skies” is a slow ballad with soft guitar, yet Furstenfeld’s vocals still struggle to tread water against the guitar, continuing to strain for the rest of the album.
Blue October has a lot of potential, but “Approaching Normal fails to live up to the the talent the band has exhibited in the past. Unfortunately, the majority of “Approaching Normal” is second-rate at best.