Through feathery descriptives, eccentric costumes and styles and a particular fascination with the Baroque era, The Decemberists came up from nothing to become of the most interesting and lofty indie pop bands of the new century. With each album they blurred the line between vintage and post modern, blending Renaissance and pop like no others. On their 2006 release, the slightly nerdy quintet signed to a major label (Capitol) and attempted to take the world by storm with blunt, but oddly satisfying album art on their sleeve and a more mainstreaminized sound on their backs. And oh what a journey it was. Through mountains, depression, war and funk rock The Decemberists keep a tight head, playing with passion and enough restraint to keep from going on pop rock on us.
When describing The Crane Wife (the Decemberist’s new album) it’s often important to not just end up babbling about Colin Meloy’s fantastic lyricism and cozy, comfortable and confident vocals. Then again it is almost completely necessary to go on and on about Colin. He’s so great, you see, that it almost drives a person to begin spewing words out of his (or her) fingertips, lips and brain. He turns epics into children’s poetry (this is a good thing mind you) giving characters faces, names and personalities to boot. He describes things so precisely that it is extremely hard to see how his whirling tales of war time Europe, gentle giants and the people that made19th century urban America so wonderful/horrible actually go anywhere at all. When the War Came
is a beautiful example of Meloy’s vocal power, his timid approach, clever words and his fantastic finish. The song pairs his vocals with his a driving, devastatingly heavy guitar riff and organist/singer, Jenny Conlee’s breathtaking backing vocals melodies.
We made our huts of avaram
We'd not betray the sole Ledum
The acres of hysterisy
To our own pangs of starvation
When the war came
When the war came
Sing Meloy and Conlee in their touching, but otherwise distant moans. I don’t know if songs get any better than this.
The LP, like many story books, takes many twists and turns. Much of the record is the already expected, but generally appreciated indie folk sound that rears its wondrous mane so many times on 2005 release, Picaresque. But The Decemberists chart unknown waters with a funk pop ditty under the name of The Perfect Crime 2 (number 1 does not appear on this album). The song features a haggard, but other wise impressive drum beat by new comer John Moen and a rousing, heavily chorused guitar solo from the band’s guitarist, the appropriately named Chris Funk, over a catchy, but disappointing rest-of-the-song. The other parts of the album echo a distinct connection to Captiol’s resident indie pop gods Death Cab for Cutie, when in fact, surprise surprise, the record was produced by the OC catapulted rockers’ one and only Chris Walla.
Unfortunately the album gets sort of samey from the end of bashful ballad, The Shankhill Butchers
through about start of the Crane Wife 2
(The Crane Wife 1 being a watered down filler track and the Crane Wife 3 being an amazing upbeat indie tune put, confusingly enough, at the beginning of the record). The Crane Wife 2 is another ballad, full of jangly acoustics, cosmopolitan country swirls and bombastic Neil Peart esque fills. The result (when paired with Colin’s love-sick coo) is absolutely astounding. Huge fans of the band may see this as a departure from their usual sound, and even the casual listener should agree, but The Decemberists are still here, wide awake and waiting. Through the sugar coating and rounded edges only the good will see how everyone’s favorite fantasy folksters are still at a career peak (whether it be the end or middle of this, no one knows). The CD had some bum tracks, but they are clearly over-shadowed by the good (some of which I would call the best of the year). It’s a hard record to rate, but it’s surely a fantastic release for most.