What Can We Do? The Decemberists Castaways and Cutouts: A Critique
by Gentry Boeckel

When on December 14, 1924, Lieutenant Panov and other high ranking leaders marched with armed troops to Senate Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, to force the Senate to sign a manifesto deposing the autocracy, abolishing serfdom, instituting democratic reforms and etc., they were harshly quelled. Not because of anyone's fault but their own, but mainly due to the hesitation and vacillation on the part of their own leaders. The Decembrists were formed after the Napoleonic wars. Largely made up of military officers who had served in the war and had been greatly influenced by liberal Western ideals not found in terribly backwards Russia. Despite their failure, the Decembrists came to be regarded as the forefathers of the Russian revolutionary movement.

After the failed revolution, five of the Decembrists were executed, and the others sent into exile in Siberia. Even after the Amnesty of 1856 allowing the exiles to return home, only forty-two did so. And even those forty-two were banned from the two capital cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The feelings of prohibition and repudiation of the Russian revolutionary Decembrists are reproduced in the music of the Portland, Oregon Decemberists on their debut full length, Castaways and Cutouts.

The outset track, "Leslie Anne Levine" is the dolefully doomed tale of a cast away child abandoned by her (I assume the protagonist is female because of the "Anne" in the forename. The given name "Leslie" can go either way, but very seldom do you find "Anne" in a male's forename.) loafer of a mother. The mother births the babe prematurely and both succumb: "I still cling to the petticoat of the girl who died with me." Still harboring angst over her mother's relationship with a man of lower class, which resulted in her own birth, the wraith of Leslie Anne aimlessly haunts the town's balcony's with rattle in hand, jangling outside it's inhabitants windows; finding fancy in another reject such as herself--the chimney sweep. In the 17th century, a Master Sweep would teach Sweep Boys, usually orphans or young children sold into the position by their parents, to climb the flues and brush them clean. Death often came from dust inhalation or cancer contracted from accumulated soot. It is insinuated that Leslie saved this sweep who was "lost and lodged" inside the chimney flue. Bitter and irresolute, Leslie's specter continues haunting her purlieu although she has long outlived all her antecedents.

A love (loss) story, "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" is told through the protagonist's three dreams, each a sort of reincarnation of his past relationships.

The first, reminiscing about a past life as a guard at the internment camp of Auschwizt II, known as Burkenau or Birkenau, our protagonist recalls how desirable the town was before the war. A time of lavish festivals and the rich rustling of the throng of the crowd. The soldier proclaims his allegiance to the war by remarking to his partner that he would rather recline with her than anything else, aside from laying his rifle down.

The second, in a fit of metaphor the protagonist likens his intimacy with that of a architecturally inept balcony. The line "The structure fell about our feet" signifies the literal razing of the relationship. "And we were free to go." implying that each felt stifled in the relationship and was joyous in their liberation.

The third, taking place in Spain, the protagonist is nearing death (most likely because he is on the run) and recollecting his past womanizing ways. He explains how both married and unmarried "fell" to him. It is safe to say the character in question is of wealth considering he uses the term "courtesan" when talking about those he serenaded, not prostitute or whore. Back in the present, he has taken up a "soiled" young girl and is traveling to an unknown location, possibly because he is wanted for some crime, which makes sense given the last lines of the stanza: "we live this close to death."

A lovely upbeat tune masking it's dark underlying storyline. "July, July!" is a retrospective tale about a back alley road and it's grisly history, which may or not be true. The storyteller (I imagine a group of adolescent boys crowded in a circle, eyes transfixed on the prevaricator as he whispers their infamous alley's shadowy past) tells of a "crooked French Canadian," who is of relation to someone he knows, who was mysteriously murdered in the alleyway. (The storyteller blames the man's death on his foible of selling illegal alcohol) The boy then turns his attention to a moment of illicit romance in that same gory alley, joking that the tart’s undergarment left much to be desired: "I'll say your camisole was a sprightly light magenta when in fact it was a nappy bluish gray." The line of the "the water rolls down the drain" from earlier in the song is repeated, but this time is followed by the substitution of the word "blood" in place of "water", which is sung with a sense of delighted discovery.

The morbidity of the previous song continues into "A Cautionary Song". Backed by the incessant thumping of an accordion, an age-old Bostonian tale of harlotry and self-renunciation is woven. The story begins with a down-and-out mother standing in the harbor, awaiting the rowboat that will take her to the "jolly boat" where she is paid to please the ruttish sailors. There is an exceptional drawing in the liner notes of the mother coyly looking off to the side as a burly brute of a man rows her out. She is bound and gagged before she is hoisted upon the sailors ship, where the men are itching for virginal satisfaction. She is passed along from boat to boat until--not she, but they--are content. They toss her a paltry wad of money and admonish her before dumping her back at the harbor. The meaning behind the song's title is made known in the final lines urging meticulous young children to be appreciative of their guardians breadwinning.

Again, the continuation of themes from song-to-song progresses. This time the theme of prostitution from "A Cautionary Song" carries on into "Odalisque". The difference being the heroine of the former song committed herself to the act, while Odalisque's situation is involuntary. An odalisque is literally a Turkish sultans concubine, and the Odalisque in the song is not far removed from the literal definition. Abandoned, orphaned, or runaway, it's not made clear, Odalisque walks the desolate fire escape as the sun sets. Reference is made to a "they" that are searching for her. What their intentions are is not truly revealed until the end, but is hinted at in the lines "they will rend you terribly...'til all your linen limbs will fall." The child's upbringing, and I use that term loosely, is that of a "lazy lady" (like the "wastrel mesallied" of “Leslie Anne Levine”?) who herself is deject, poverty-ridden and possibly a prostitute herself, hence the judgment of "lazy". "What do we do with ten baby shoes, a kit bag full of marbles and a broken billiard cue?" cries the mother, either flummoxed as to what to do with her child’s old playthings, or it's a reference to her ineptitude as a mother. The phrase "What do we do?" (first heard here, but also in forthcoming songs) and the feeling of utter confusion and dismay, that is shown most heavily in “Odalisque”, is a recurring motif of the album.

Again, tacit references are made to the child's sexual abuse: "Fifteen stitches will mend those britches right and then rip them down again." The next line shows the mother continuing to bemoan her abjection, revealing some anti-Semitism in the process: "And what do we do with ten dirty Jews, a thirty-ought full of rock salt and a warm afternoon?" The most explicit allusion to Odalisque's abuse is manifested in the last carnal lines which are sung to the throbbing pulse of the guitar: "Lay you belly under mind. Naked under me. Such a filthy dimming shine, the way you kick and scream." The song ends with the narrator pressing the subject of Odalisque's origin again, leaving us with the impression that the narrator feels Odalisque's fate is not that of her own, but of the remiss wench who birthed her.

A welcome change from the abrasiveness of the previous few tracks, "Cocoon", the lengthiest (and most abstruse) track of the album (discounting the final track's double entente), ungulates along slowly. Vesuvius, a volcano in southern Italy sets the scene for the saga of love during a time of war and strife. During World War II, Naples, which is not far from Vesuvius's place in the Bay of Naples, was repeatedly bombed by Ally forces until its capture in 1943, as well as being heavily damaged by the retreating Germans, who learned a trick or two from the Russians. The protagonist waits under the great volcano, but "only the ashes remain," he/she says--in essence--he/she has been stood up. The character then jumps forward to the present, lying with his love, both of them "waiting for something to...shake us from gravity's pull." They are in a state of immobility, sleeping away the days, asking, like the mother of "Odalisque", "What can we do?" The protagonist is jolted out of his stagnant state by the "low dirty war" but his partner was not: "it [the war] happened before you came to." The lines following are ambiguous, which is not helped by the line sung "view to the quarterback's room" written as "key to the quarterback's room" in the liner notes. Possibly an allusion to an illicit affair? The devotion the main character shows to his partner is incessant in spite of idolatries--it' a protection, a cocoon.

A gorgeous tribute to San Francisco, and a lovely escapism tune at the same time. The beauty of "Grace Cathedral Hill" is in how prosaic the tale is, yet how picturesquely told it is. It's New Year's Day. The male protagonist stares at the dying Cathedral hill, and decides to enter the basilica atop it. He coughs up a quarter to light a candle only to watch it melt to its wick. Turning on his heels, he and his "green-eyed girl" traverse bustling Hyde St. Pier for a hot dog. In the distance the National Anthem is heard. It's made clear that his mate is crestfallen, and hopes that a night on the town will cheer her up: "on a motorbike...all the city lights blind your eyes tonight, are you feeling better now?" It doesn't. He stares into her moist eyes, cursing the charlatan's on the corner selling faux religious talismans: "Fifty-three bucks to buy a brand new halo." He inwardly declares his love for this Irish brat, finally understanding that he will go to the ends of the earth for her--and why not? He's already been to the Catholic church....

The nameless French soldier of "The Legionnaire's Lament" lies prostrate under the hot desert sun, yearning to be back in his fertile homeland. Putting the lyrical clues together, it is most probable that the roasting soldier is a member of the French Foreign Legion enlisted to pacify Algeria in the 1830s. A minor dispute between the two countries resulted in Charles X of France imposing a naval blockade of Algeria and then, in June, 1830, invading the country. Taking that position, one would have to look at the mention of the Frigidaire either as flippancy, or Meloy squeezing humor out of an anachronism. The evidence in support of the setting being Algeria is firstly the mention of the "desert dry"--the Saharan desert is in the southern-most part of the country. The second is the references to late 18th and early 19th century items. The first being the use of laudanum, which was made illegal in 1920 with the Dangerous Drugs Act and the second being the term "charabanc" which is now long obsolete. Then there's the various French references: joie de vivre, Paree, the Seine, shiraz wine, and Champs Elysee avenue. "The Legionnaire's Lament" epitomizes what first attracted me to the Decemberists: a history anecdote wrapped in a shiny melodious pop song.

The pariah motif continues in the gentle "Clementine". A triumph of dependence, the narrative begins after the desolation of the abode of the main character's “lady lioness.” The result being a paroxysm for leniency, with both characters, faces upturned, weeping into the barren night. The newly vagabond couple then dream of being married, still poor and destitute, but "so sweet and hilarious." Accepting their impecuniosity, they envision themselves in a makeshift shelter, performing tender melodies together to pass the time--impoverished but in love.

"What can you do?" is echoed again in "California One". Aptly placed in the same track as "Youth and Beauty Brigade", it can be interpreted as the peregrination of the first initiates into the Youth and Beauty Brigade to volunteer. The song gently molds into a short sound clip from Archangel by Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. "I've heard of ghosts," the woman whispers. "Good ghosts who wander the battlefields at night, guiding soldiers out of danger....If I was such a ghost I would stay so close to you, you could feel my breath on your cheek." Her words are reassurance, much like the answer to another castaway's question "Where do the ducks go in the winter?"

In a final call to arms, "Youth and Beauty Brigade" upstarts and is firmly aimed at all the delinquents and deadbeats, the ne'er-do-wells and untouchables--"fill it up" Meloy sings. A sound summation of the previous nine yarns that ran the gamut of derelictism. The Youth and Beauty Brigade maxim is reverberated in the final coda, "Nothing will stand in our way."