The curiously named Piñataland excel in a style of music as curious as its name, though that style is not entirely uncommon. Their penchant for telling myth and story via folk music make them something like a less eccentric version of The Decemberists. While the stories on Hymns for the Dreadful Night are most definitely odd, none come close to matching the often confusing story told on The Decemberists’ overwrought The Hazards of Love. However, Piñataland stylistically part ways with the band in many ways, in particular in the type of stories they tell and how they tell them. While many of The Decemberists’ fairy tales are more likely to be filed under fiction, Piñataland are most comfortable in exploring the characters of history: Thomas Paine, John F. Kennedy, Joan of Arc and George Washington all make appearances on this record, among many others. Also unlike The Decemberists, who have gone everywhere from prog metal to Donovan-esque singer/songwriter, Piñataland prefer to stick to a typical folk aesthetic. The instrumentation on this record is for the most part organic, which creates a rather authentic background to the album’s strange alternate histories.
The album’s tall tales usually begin with references to historical people and places, but the historical validity pretty much ends there, as the songs take these real people to very unreal places. “Hiawatha” imagines a conversation between a radio DJ and the respective ghosts of Elvis, Sputnik, Geronimo, JFK and Marilyn Monroe. “Cemetery Mink” depicts the life of the eponymous animal as it burrows its way through a graveyard, coming upon the resting places of George Washington and Marilyn Monroe. Because of the quality of the music, one doesn’t really have to appreciate the album’s quirky campfire tales to enjoy the record, though on tracks like “Hiawatha” the story dominates the song.
For some songs, the story-centric structure works. “Island of Godless Man” humorously imagines late 17th century Brooklyn as the archetypal symbol of wanton debauchery, and subsequently a sign of the coming apocalypse. The anachronistic incorrectness of the song’s narrator is the album’s most clever moment, as well as an interesting historical insight. Other tracks like “Hiawatha” are unfortunately not as successful; the telephone vocal effect used as the narrative framework of the song comes off as kitsch, and at seven minutes its enjoyability wears off fast.
Fortunately, the album’s love for absurd historical tales doesn’t cast a pall over the record, and instead the stories become just a part of the music and not overbearing. The record is supposed to be a concept record about fear of the night, but that motif doesn’t end up becoming too strong, and instead requires the listener to read that concept into the stories.
Album opener “The Dreadful Night” laments the coming of dusk, but the music is hardly macabre. Much of the album sounds kindred to the recent work of The Avett Brothers in its reliance on the piano, which makes the music more beautiful than menacing. Even the gypsy stomp “The Death of Silas Deane’s” dark tale doesn’t come off as horrifying as its title might imply. The spookiness the band aims for is achieved more often than not, but not in a lugubrious fashion. The album’s darkest track, “The Oldest Band in Town,” recalls The Black Heart Procession, whose darkness is often used as stylistic novelty and not as a means of shocking the listener.
What helps keep the album’s rich tales and concept grounded is the music, which, unlike the album’s left-field anecdotes, is firmly grounded in one style. The band sticks to Americana and folk for the majority of the record. When the album diverts from that sound palate, the sounds aren’t too far removed from what dominates the majority of the record. “The Death of Silas Deane’s” gypsy-folk stylings are pretty close to the rest of the album’s sonic, though it does stand out as a unique moment. The most different moment on the record is “Border Guard,” a perfect candidate for a lead single. The song very comfortably fits in with much of today’s popular country music. Its mostly wordless, hummable chorus is the album’s most infectious moment, and the music backing it is the album’s most relaxed. It’s a fantastically serene moment on an album that, while not too grandiloquent, certainly does become heavy under the weight of its many historical characters and stories.
After the last tale comes to its conclusion, Hymns for the Dreadful Night reveals these raconteurs to be incredibly gifted at their craft. The band is certainly not immune to the pratfalls of story-heavy folk music, but instead of taking the entirety of the record to indulge in the genre’s excesses, the band crafts a record that’s quite accessible but also uncompromising in its peculiar style. The lyrical content of the record seems bent on creating a dark and cruel world, but the beauty of the music is more likely to leave a listener in rapt attention to the tunes than frightened by the villainous motives of the album’s characters.