Review Summary: Proggy Folk Music Propelled By Sheer Ambition
The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
Colin Meloy has a peculiar fascination with the nineteenth century. As the vocalist and headman for Oregon folk-rock group The Decemberists, Meloy has been crafting accessible music which manages to sound experimental by focusing on forgotten styles and cultures. His themes are rooted firmly in 1800s canon: love, murder, hopeless longing, and death. Especially death. For if classic literature is truly our source, there is no such thing as a happy ending.
The impressive "The Crane Wife" pushes the band into new ground, historically and musically. The plot focuses on the Japanese folk story of the same name I recall hearing as a child. The story is told in reverse order - a peculiar choice which serves successfully to launch a listener into the album and keeps it satisfying on repeated listens. The band takes a page from contemporaries Neutral Milk Hotel and combines two parts of the story into a single track (ninth track "The Crane Wife 1 & 2"), which didn't make sense the first time around either.
The musical ground continues to tread that same tricky ground somewhere between The Cranberries and Joanna Newsom, with a touch of Pink Floyd (quite a slew of influences). Accordions, chimes and organ punctuate the band's civil war ballads and melancholy folk. We saw the band's progressive rock side in EP "The Tain", and the band's prog-rock jamming grows into a monstrous beastie on this album, taking three tracks with it. Awesome second track "The Island" pushes 12 1/2 minutes with a long riff that sounds straight out of "The Wall". Somehow the band manages to make this all sound cohesive - no mean feat for a group known for dark sea shanties.
The Decemberists are an easy band to dismiss in concept, but their music is impossible for a warm-blooded critic to discount. Colin's NPR show-off vocabulary continues unabated (tossing out little morsels like "paragon", "parallex" and "parapet" in a particularly undigestable sentence), but the words are used effectively, not gratuitously. The band still dons nineteenth-century period costumes for photo shoots, but a band like this couldn't sail on typical rock getup.
Everything on this album is hummable and hooky. The progressive rock elements go by so smoothly you won't notice (except for largely-unmelodic "When the War Came", which flirts as close to metal as this group will ever get). Every track vibrates with dedication and folk nirvana. After years of listening to post-grunge blah everywhere you turn, music like this radiates so much dignity that I couldn't help but love the album from the first time I heard it. I still love it almost as much. From the emotive tragic opener, to the optimistic finale, The Crane Wife is a victory of musical composition. I suggest that you give this emotional little folk story a try.
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