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The Decemberists - The Crane Wife CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.99 | 163 ratings

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4 stars Aside from being the first vinyl album I've purchased in over twenty years, 'The Crane Wife' is a pleasantly fresh offering from a band that has steadily built a solid following over the past five or six years. I'm not sure what is motivating labels to start offering music on records again, but when I saw this one along with the CD version a few months ago I knew I had to have the vinyl. Oddly the spine labeling is upside-down, but the gatefold inner sleeve sports a nice Oriental-inspired charcoal drawing from band leader Colin Meloy's sweety Carson Ellis. She also contributed the slightly creepy sketch of Mr. and Mrs. Crane on the cover.

So the Decemberists are back with a new offering, and with a few changes as well. Dowdy diva Petra Hayden is sadly gone, although the multi-talented Jenny Conlee does a solid job of providing those bored harmonizing vocals that Hayden made such a trademark of the band. Also gone are pretty much everybody else except the core band lineup of Conlee and the just as multi-talented Chris Funk and bassist Nate Query, who also manages some time behind a cello as well. John Moen becomes the third drummer for the band, although former drummer Ezra Holbrook hangs around long enough to provide some backing vocals. Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Christopher Walla produces his second album for the band.

But most notably the band has departed their indie label Kill Rock Stars and sold out for a big fat distribution deal with Capitol Records. Typically moves like this result in a watered down version of a band with the rough edges chipped away to produce a blander version of themselves that ends up being just insipid enough to not offend anyone's sensibilities and yield millions in pre-teen record sales. Fortunately that doesn't seem to have happened here. Sure, the charmingly amateurish production of 'Picaresque' and the disjointed song selection of 'Her Majesty' are a thing of the past, but frankly that was bound to happen as these guys jelled together after several years of nearly endless touring together.

Meloy's songwriting skills are keenly honed, so much so that he effortlessly slips into marginally indie pop territory a couple of times without even seeming to try. But that's okay too - overall this is a very solid offering, and the band's indie background may in fact prove too strong to ever completely shake free from. Guest musicians include the eccentric and somewhat recluse Eyvind Kang on strings, as well as a great vocal appearance by fellow Portlander and nerd goddess Laura Veirs.

From the opening notes of "The Crane Wife 3" this seems like yet another acoustic-guitar and odd vocal-driven affair starring my favorite geek Colin Meloy. The syncopated snare and hand drums, along with Query's foot-tapping bass, give this a bit richer sound than some of the band's previous works though, and Conlee more than makes up for the absence of Hayden with her backing vocals. This album is a loosely coupled combination of an old Japanese tale of a crane turned woman who is rescued by a kindly man who nurses her to health but ends up unknowingly driving her to self-destruction through his own greed. Sort of a musical variation of the late Shel Silverstein's parable 'The Giving Tree'.

I said combination because the other theme that runs through the album is based on the once-forgotten Shakespeare play The Tempest. If you are familiar with Meloy's literary bent this comes as no surprise, and I have to wonder how many of the characters off the Decemberists' previous albums 'Castaways & Cutouts' and 'Her Majesty' were also inspired somewhat by this tale. The Tempest is too complex to summarize quickly, so let Google lead you to a good synopsis on-line some time if you're really curious.

Most of Meloy's version of The Tempest is contained in the trilogy "The Island", an eleven-minute affair consisting of the tracks "Come And See", "The Landlord's Daughter", and the fateful "You'll Not Feel The Drowning"; as well as the epilogues "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" and the somewhat unrelated token hit single "O Valencia!". Musicallythis is ostensibly folk, although the more staid fans of the genre would probably argue it's a bit too polished in places to be a true representation. Fortunately I don't have that problem, and find these tracks to be utterly enjoyable and uplifting.

"Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" also features the most prominent vocals besides Meloy's that appear on any Decemberists album. While Meloy has employed female backing singers since his days with the alt-country band Tarkio, this is the first and only time he yields an equal billing to someone else. Laura Veirs is a well-known modern folk singer from the USA west coast, and she gives this particular song a welcome richness and melodic tint. The band has had a number of guest singers (sometimes impromtu costars or opening acts( when performing this track on their live tour over the past year. The most recent femme de jour was Talkdemonic vocalist Lisa Molinaro, who isn't actually a band member, but did an admirable job on the band's tour supporting this release.

"O Valencia!" is clearly the band's attempt at a hit single, and the band went all-out to promote it. This included a famous 'green screen challenge' featured on YouTube and the Comedy Central faux news show The Colbert Report, as well as a well-publicized appearance on Late Night with David Letterman last winter. The story is a clear cop of West Side Story, with a young Turk who comes from the wrong side of town for his lover's family's tastes. In the end of course the girl is inadvertently slain by her own family as a result of a fight between the overprotective brothers' and Meloy's character. I'll be the first to admit this is clearly a pop song musically, but the story line is definitely its saving grace.

The weakest track was probably another attempt at a single, "The Perfect Crime No.2". This is a peppy-sounding tune, but lacks both the substance and charm of most of the band's other works. As near as I can tell this is some sort of Bonnie and Clyde kind of tale with whorish flappers and goon-men and bank robberies and G-men. So its set in the early 20th century, which is pretty modern for a Colin Meloy song. Pleasant enough to listen to, but not on-par with the band's better stuff.

The band turns heavy on the dirge-like "When the War Came", a bizarre theme even for the oddball Meloy. As near as I can tell this is about Nikolai Vavilov (a Russian botanist) who was credited as one of the fathers of modern plant genetics. Apparently Vavilov was also responsible for amassing the largest collection of plant seeds and samples in the world around the time of World War II. Some have even condemned him for protecting this collection of edible seeds during the starvation deaths of many of the million and a half Russians who died during the Siege of Leningrad in that war. This is also undoubtedly the only song you'll ever hear that manages to rhyme the words "solanum" and "asteraceae" (hell if I know - look them up yourself).

Once more into history with "Shankill Butchers". This one is a very laid-back, acoustic guitar, accordion and bouzouki tinged tune about the ruthless Ulster Protestant highwaymen who abducted and murdered Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1970's. This one seems a bit close to home for the Irish-descendant Meloy, and for probably the first time I get the impression he isn't making light of this blot on history. I've heard the red blood splotches on the album's cover, inside jacket, and Conlee's blouse are tributes to the fallen Catholics of that violent period.

Instrumentally "Summersong" is kind of interesting, featuring not only the usual acoustic guitar and cello, but also a glockenspiel courtesy of Conlee, a hurdy-gurdy from guitarist Chris Funk that was reportedly acquired during the recording of 'Picaresque', and a little pedal steel. Lyrically this is probably the most trite thing Meloy ever penned, a tribute to the end of summer that might also be referring to the end of a civilization or community as a result of war. Hard to tell with Meloy, but this is a rather forgettable tune for the most part.

The band returns to the beginning of the album with "The Crane Wife 1 & 2", telling the end of the story when the greedy husband discovers his wife is actually producing his wealth by consuming her crane self and spinning her own feathers into glorious clothing that he has been selling to finance his grand lifestyle. In the end she flies off never to return. This song moves back into a folkish bent, with delicate percussion and gentle strings and acoustic strumming. An appropriately staid and mournful arrangement to represent the sad end of the story.

But Meloy leaves us on a high note with the closing "Sons and Daughters", a lyrical round that was obviously meant to be performed live, probably as a closing number for a concert. You not only picture the audience swaying back and forth while chanting about reconstructing a war-ravaged land, but you will likely find yourself singing along full of hope and charity yourself. At least I hope so - that's the whole point:

"Take up your arms sons and daughters, we will arise from the bunkers;

by land, by sea, by dirigible - we'll leave our tracks untraceable now.

When arrive sons and daughters, we'll make our lives on the water;

we'll build our walls aluminum, we'll fill our mouths with cinnamon..

Hear all the bombs fade away, hear all the bombs fade away, hear all the bombs fade away."

Well, there you go. Is this stuff progressive music? I think so. More importantly, Colin Meloy and the Decemberists have an uncanny knack for completely absorbing the essence and tragedy as well as the irrepressible beauty of the human condition through wildly woven tales of despair and of redemption; and in eliciting compassion and understanding in all who hear them. That's the same kind of connection Woody Guthrie and Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Barry McGuire and Roger McGuinn and Peter Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger and so many others spent their lifetimes trying to make. And it's the kind of connection that makes music so addictive and so important. Music does matter, and Colin Meloy sure gets that. Despite the occasional commercial leaning and the couple of less grand tracks, this is one of the most important albums of this young century, and one with a depth that ensures it will have staying power beyond the next few years. And for that I think it will earn the title of 'masterpiece', although for now I'll anoint it a strong four-star effort with the promise to be back to add the other star some day. Very highly recommended.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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