"Dear Colin, you’re looking mighty well today. Did your goings-on with Mrs. Erstwhile last night fare as the Queen’s fleet ‘pun the Dardenelles?"
"Quite the shanty! Once her knickers were made free I set about my business as a candle-spinner, whereupon we were accosted by a dark figure of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, two years leave, who having failed to woo the crowds onstage at the Empire promenade made habit of eviscerating my insides as he swigged from his scum-soaked bottle of gin."
"Yes, now let’s get out the accordion and write a tune ’bout it."
I often wonder if conversation between Colin Meloy and the rest of the Decemberists sounds this way. Are the seafaring pirates, tear-stained whores, and stiff-lipped infantrymen of 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts and 2003’s Her Majesty the Decemberists greater than mere thoughts prattling about within Meloy’s skull? Maybe the songwriter really is missing an eye and uses a wooden leg, never abandoning his 19th-century rifle as he bemoans his premature birth and drowned fiancees. Wait, no: Colin Meloy was born in Missoula, Montana, hails from Portland, Oregon and graduated with a degree in creative writing.
Just as the band is so obsessed with the ancient and anachronistic, it seems fitting to look back upon Meloy and Co.’s past for clues to the modern-day curiosity that is the Decemberists. On the success of Castaways, Hush Records decided to re-release the group’s virgin foray into the music world, a six-track EP titled 5 Songs. The album is full of hints to the Decemberists’s future, whether they be the watery dreams of "Oceanside"; love interests who have grandmotherly names, like Annabelle; or the fictional character study of "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist," the EP stands alone as a very different creature from Meloy’s later work.
The most noticeable change between 5 Songs and Castaways or Her Majesty is the sheer amount of pop that soaks throughout this EP. Opener "Oceanside" is trademark early Beatles, complete with background "ahs" and a George Harrison solo. But the Decemberists’s voice shows through with the liberal use of accordion and Victorian imagery, such as a "ne’er-do-well who fell asleep at the peeling of the steeple bell."
The EP’s best song, "Angel Won’t You Call Me," is folk-rock at its poppiest best. What it lacks in lyrical depth it makes up for with jangly hooks and textures reminiscent of the La’s and even the Steve Miller Band. Strangely, the song’s crescendo feels remarkably similar to one of the Decemberists’s few other pop songs, "July, July!"
Unfortunately, these two fine pieces are balanced out by two plodding, overlong songs: "Shiny" and "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist." Both are easily forgettable in Meloy’s growing canon. "I Don’t Mind" hints a bit at the sleepy, beautiful emotion of Castaways‘ "California One," with some fine horn and flute arrangements to boot. The curious sixth song on the EP, "Apology Song," is a silly but enjoyable pop throwaway, but it gives us a view into Meloy’s lyrics when he’s not pouring over Melville. He tells a simple and straightforward narrative, beginning with, "I’m really sorry Steven, but your bicycle’s been stolen."
The debut EP contains only an ounce of the originality and charm of the Decemberists’s later albums, but it offers some fine folk pop music for fans and British sea captains alike.
– July 2004