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The Decemberists - The Crane Wife CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.99 | 161 ratings

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RIO/Avant/Zeuhl Team
4 stars While we are waiting to get The Decemberists' new album in the mail, I thought it would be a good idea for me to write a companion review to the one my husband wrote for this album some time ago. We discovered the band through The Crane Wife, and the impression it left on both of us was strong enough to make us want to acquire their whole output. As a lover (and occasional scholar) of folk music and traditions, the notion of an American band who delved deep into the vast musical and cultural heritage of both the Old and the New World was enough to intrigue me, and convince me to take the plunge when, about one month ago, I saw The Crane Wife in a secondhand CD store.

In spite of being all too often lumped together with the whole, somewhat nebulous 'indie' scene (as if not being signed to a major recording label could really be termed as a musical subgenre), The Decemberists offer a unique package to those who approach them. Intellectual and sophisticated in the way West Coasters often are, their lyrical themes a veritable feast for anyone with an interest in history, literature and deeply moving, offbeat stories of ordinary people, they may not immediately strike the listener as conventionally 'prog' in a musical sense - this being particularly true of their first two albums. However, starting with their EP The Tain the band have moved more and more into Prog-Folk territory, producing work that has often drawn comparisons to the likes of Jethro Tull.

The Crane Wife sets them squarely in that territory, with the presence of not one, but two full-fledged, multi-part epics (The Island and the title-track), and an even richer, multi-layered instrumentation than on its predecessor, the excellent Picaresque. The liner notes list an array of instruments that is nothing short of impressive, provided both by the band members and by guest musicians: not only strings, which add depth to the band's sound, but also such mainstays of traditional folk music as the accordion, the bouzouki, and the hurdy gurdy. Colin Meloy's melancholy, storyteller's voice may be the single factor that anchors The Decemberists' music to the whole indie/alternative scene (though here he sounds much less like REM's Michael Stipe than he does on Picaresque) - however, this is also true of other singers of bands whose relation to prog has long since been accepted (Muse and Radiohead spring to mind). In my view, the myth that a prog vocalist worth his/her salt has to sound theatrical, or even plain overwrought, should be debunked at all costs - though it is also true that certain bands are not associated with prog by far too many listeners just because the vocals 'don't sound prog'.

The way the band have chosen to present the album's titular epic adds interest value to an already fascinating effort. The source for "The Crane Wife" is an old Japanese folktale based on the well-known motif of the bird-bride, and of how a broken promise leads to her leaving her husband forever. Like so much contemporary literature, the story is told using the narrative device of prolepsis (or 'flashforward'), which in this case hints at its tragic ending without giving away too much; while the bulk of the tale is told in Parts 1 and 2, strategically placed towards the end of the album. Parts 1 and 3 are deceptively upbeat from a musical point of view (as is often the case with the band's output), while the deep sense of loss intrinsic to the tale is brought to bear in the plaintive, rarefied Part 2, whose almost unbearably sad chorus seems to foreshadow the inevitable conclusion.

The Island, the disc's undisputed highlight, and also its most progressive number, is inspired by one of the most fascinating works of literature ever, Shakespeare's last play, "The Tempest", whose main action takes place on a mysterious island haunted by magic. Introduced by a magnificent instrumental section, it is divided in three sharply characterised parts, rich with lavish arrangements (check Jenny Conlee's superb Hammond organ work if you, like me, are fans of the instrument). The lyrics to the mournful, low-key "You'll Not Feel the Drowning" (enhanced by the accompaniment of a cello), the final part of the suite, are almost a companion piece to T.S. Eliot's own take on "The Tempest", "Death by Water". The epic finds its epilogue in an apparently unrelated song, the oddly infectious "Yankee Bayonet", in which Meloy's vocals find a perfect foil in those of Seattle-based singer-songwriter Laura Veirs. The song, bright and melodic in spite of its subject matter, is a duet between a soldier killed in the American Civil War and his sweetheart.

In spite of it overall high quality, "The Crane Wife" has its weak moments, namely the two consecutive songs "O Valencia!" and "The Perfect Crime #2", both pleasant though rather nondescript indie pop offerings conceived (particularly the first) to appeal to a wider audience. Conversely, the guitar-driven "When the War Came" almost strays into heavy rock territory, with its steady, plodding beat and apocalyptic lyrics (as well as the brilliantly wacky use of scientific terms for potatoes and sunflowers). This dark mood is kept up by a slow, acoustic number, "Shankhill Butchers", which references a particularly bloody episode of Northern Irish history with plenty of disturbing imagery; while the deceptively cheerful "Summersong" reprises the 'dead sailor' theme of "The Island". After the tour-de-force that is "The Crane Wife Pt. 1 & 2", the rousing, anthemic "Sons and Daughters", a call-to-arms promoting peace and reconstruction at the end of a war, closes the album on a very positive note, though somewhat at odds with its overall mood.

It should be obvious by now that The Decemberists' take on prog rock as shown by this album is definitely not what purists can expect - hence the allegations of them being just an indie band with intellectual pretensions. Yes, some of their songs are poppy and catchy, even radio-friendly (they got signed by Capitol for this album after all), but this is also true of a myriad other bands whose 'pure prog' status is hardly ever questioned. To the discerning listener, "The Crane Wife" offers outstanding musicianship, extremely well-crafted lyrics, and a wide range of intriguing subject matter underpinned by music that is in turns intensely sad and exhilaratingly uplifting. Highly recommended to anyone open-minded enough to look beyond any labels or comparisons. A very solid four-star rating from this reviewer.

Raff | 4/5 |


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