The Decemberists

Castaways and Cutouts (Hush/Kill Rock Stars)

Colin Meloy, the singer-songwriter at the heart of the Decemberists, spent his musically formative years in Missoula, Montana, but you couldn't prove it by Castaways and Cutouts. The first full-length by his band, which is currently based in Portland, Oregon, sounds for all the world like the work of a hyper-literate Brit whose moody pop sensibility was formed while matriculating at Oxford.

"Leslie Anne Levine," the lead track here, sets the tone via a narrator "born at nine and dead at noon," whose only love was "a chimney sweep/Lost and lodged inside a flue/Back in 1842." The formality of this language, which Meloy croons in a crisp, clean tenor voice that keeps hinting at an accent he never actually displays, is paired with music highlighted by Jenny Conlee's patient accordion, Chris Funk's atmospheric pedal steel, Ezra Holbrook's unfussy drumming and Nate Query's steady upright bass. The resulting tune is simultaneously ghoulish and enchanting -- a blend not yet available at your neighborhood Starbucks.

Although Meloy seems most comfortable moving at a modest tempo, he occasionally comes up with a jaunty melody of the sort that enlivens "The Legionnaire's Lament," in which the desert-dwelling protagonist hopes for "a Frigidaire to come passing by." Still, misery lurks behind every hook: Consider the sonically sprightly "July, July!," which moves from a couplet celebrating a light-magenta camisole to lyrical images of blood rolling down the drain. As for the concluding "Youth and Beauty Brigade," this rallying cry to bedwetters, ambulance chasers, pickpockets and those with light loafers might seem funny on the page, but its execution is oddly melancholic, and all the better for it. Anglophiles from Missoula, unite.

 
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