A one song EP recorded in two days might seem negligible, but the one song that constitutes The Tain is a genuine tour de force, an eighteen minute, five part, suite based on an ancient Welsh legend. If that sounds like a throwback to the heyday of seventies progressive rock, that’s precisely correct – The Tain is the Decemberists’ equivalent to Genesis’ ‘Supper Ready’ or the first half of Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick As A Brick’.
If a comparison to canonised works by men with much longer beards seems hyperbolic, The Tain is an extremely coherent, memorable concept record that meets its goals perfectly. The Decemberists have the structure and feeling of the progressive rock suite down pat; rolling through an ominous opening section, head banging second part, mournful third part, fruity fourth part, and ending with a suitably rousing climax. The beauty of such a long song is that it allows scope for much more extremity than on regular four minute songs – for instance, a huge dramatic climax that wouldn’t be feasible in a four minute pop song, unless you’re Celine Dion, is necessary here and it’s executed brilliantly. The electric riffs of Part II are far heavier than anything else in The Decemberists’ catalogue, with some great fills from drummer Rachel Blumberg, while Blumberg also gets a sole writing credit and vocal on the fourth section.
The story’s difficult to follow, and you probably don’t want to pay too much for a sub-twenty minute EP, The Tain is a great little record that’s quintessentially Decemberists, but which breaks new ground for them and which they’d explore further in 2009’s The Hazards of Love.