The danger in a project like the Decemberists' -- basically, the Portland band plays intellectual sea chanteys about topics both grim (unrequited love) and grimmer (murder-by-whale) -- is the inclination toward the half-assed. In a post-Elephant 6 era in which gear is as affordable as it's ever been, too many indie bands muck up their mediocre guitar-bass-drums setup with barely considered layers of strings-vibes-horns, hoping that we'll be wowed by the spectacle alone.
Thankfully, very little of Picaresque, the Decemberists' third full-length, sounds half-assed: Produced by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, the album is rich with lovingly detailed melodies. Frontman Colin Meloy sings with grad-student warmth, and the band's sax solos and accordion wheeze feel homey and lived-in, not dashed-off and lazy. If the Decemberists don't rock as hard here as they have onstage over the past year or so, they've made up for it with an articulate, nuanced roll. Meloy's stories, too, usually merit the instrumental extravagance: In "Sixteen Military Wives," he removes himself from the 19th century to cast a skeptical eye toward modern times, and in "The Sporting Life," he performs an autopsy on team spirit over a jaunty gallop.