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The Decemberists

    5 Songs (EP) (Hush, 2001)
    Castaways and Cutouts (Kill Rock Stars, 2002)
     Her Majesty the Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars, 2003)
    The Tain (EP) (Kill Rock Stars, 2004)
     Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars, 2005)
    The Crane Wife (Capitol, 2006)
     The Hazards of Love (Capitol, 2009)

This Portland, Oregon quintet provokes passionate adoration and equally passionate loathing. They are nerdy and fey as all get-out, and very proud of it. Frontman Colin Meloy's lyrics are packed with dactyls, archaisms and colorful characters (this is a band that calls a song "The Chimbley Sweep" with a nearly straight face), and his singing voice returns the favor to generations of British rockers who've faked Mississippi Delta accents: It's an arch, plummy, adenoidal construction, somewhere in the neighborhood of Meloy's idols Robyn Hitchcock and Morrissey.

Aside from Meloy's singing, the pleasant and unassuming Five Songs EP (which actually includes six songs) could be mistaken for a straightforward folk-rock record. Only a few lyrics, like the farcical waltz "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist," hint at the high-minded geekery to come. That stuff arrived in earnest with Castaways and Cutouts: Within the first four songs, Meloy croons in the character of a 19th-century infant ghost, deploys the words "balustrade," "indolent" and "camisole," and casts aspersions on the means by which his audience's mothers earn money for their collard greens. The band rolls along jollily, propelled by Jenny Conlee's melodica and organ.

Her Majesty the Decemberists continues Meloy's amble along the high aesthetic line — there are tributes to artist Marcel Duchamp and novelist Myla Goldberg — with a few sallies out to the sea and the battlefield, both enduring fascinations for him. Its punchiest tune, though, belongs to "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," as backhanded a tribute to L.A. as anyone since Randy Newman has written (the title rhymes with "an ocean's garbled vomit on the shore"). The album was followed, before long, by the EP The Tain, the first real sign of the band's prog-rock tendencies. An 18-minute suite inspired by Irish mythology, it would fit right in on the better Jethro Tull albums, although there's not much here for anyone who doesn't think there are such things as better Jethro Tull albums.

Extensive touring sharpened up the band, and Picaresque is a bolder, more confident record than they'd made before. "The Infanta" rocks as much as it rollicks, "The Sporting Life" lifts its beat from "You Can't Hurry Love" by way of "This Charming Man," and "Sixteen Military Wives" is acidic political commentary elevated by a cheery horn section. The album's climax is a hilariously over-the-top nine-minute nautical epic, "The Mariner's Revenge Song," which became the band's standard encore for years.

The Crane Wife, the first major-label Decemberists album, tones down the goofiness in favor of a pacifist solemnity that doesn't quite suit the band, although its posh, tailored production is awfully flattering. (Two members of the group are credited with bouzouki parts; Laura Veirs drops by for the duet "Yankee Bayonet.") Meloy may be the kind of lyricist who never writes "you won't" when he could write "you'll not," but he's also the kind of melodist who can pull off the loops and leaps of the West Side Story fantasia "O Valencia!"

Preceded by three lively non-album singles, The Hazards of Love is a full-on, unapologetic rock opera, complete with extra vocalists (My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden and Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark) singing some of its roles. It's the most effulgent flowering to date of Meloy's fascination with folk songs — there's a William, a Margaret, a Queen, a rake whose murdered children return to take revenge on him, an original number named after the traditional "Annan Water." Not many of these songs can stand on their own, but taken as a whole it's a lush, effective, surprisingly heavy piece of prog-rock.

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