Chris Donaghey
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December 21, 2006
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Rock Music Reviews
The Decemberists
The Crane Wife

Only a few years ago, a literate folk group from Washington releasing a concept album based on a Japanese folk tale would have had critics scrambling to find their "pretentious" stamp and listeners darting to their thesauri to formulate a new phrase for "What the hell?" Then came the Decemberists. Armed with frontman Colin Meloy's complex narratives and a veritable onslaught of heady instrumentation (accordions outside of Weird Al?), they took the underground by storm, turning heads with their subject matter, quirky nature, and surprising catchiness that boiled over in their most recent release, Picaresque. Major labels caught attention, the troop signed, and pieced together The Crane Wife, the next unlikely chapter for a most unlikely torchbearer of modern music.

An initial point to note about this album is that the term "concept album" is used loosely here. The crane wife story is essentially a cynical fairy tale, the ol' "man finds hurt crane/crane turns into woman/love/greed/heartbreak" dynamic we've become accustomed to in recent times. To say that the term is not used to its most strict definition is not to take away from the concept approach, however, as all fundamental elements of the story are approached - with some liberties taken, of course. The most blatantly straightforward representation of the story comes in "The Crane Wife 1 & 2" and, yes, "The Crane Wife 3" which essentially take us through the whole folk tale until the lovelorn conclusion, 'feathers falling from skin' and Cupid's arrows strewn about through three mini-suites of orchestral folk-pop. Combined, they run about sixteen minutes; this way, even armchair cultural students can glean nuggets of Japanese splendor.

The individual songs manage to function well when separated from an overarching storyline as well. "O Valencia!," the most accessible song on the album (possibly due to the REM-ripped guitar), is a swelling and swirling tale of romance and death in the vein of Shakespearean tragedy and disillusionment. Electric and acoustic guitars create a fragile synergy when coupled with Meloy and multi-talented Jenny Conlee's yearning vocals, symbols of a romantic but unenviable inevitability. "Shankill Butchers," on the other hand, displays to listeners a group of fallen drunkards with a propensity for schadenfreude in the form of an unnerving tale that a parent would convey to their ragamuffin child to scare them straight. Chris Walla again adds a deft touch to the atmosphere of the album, stripping all but the necessary elements to allow only the most essential instruments and Meloy's vocals to add weight to the work.

Walla's production prowess does not begin or end with the previous songs, though. Even though songs relating to the crane wife tale and the other supposed storyline (the loosely tied "The Island," which includes the 12+ minute epic song of the same name) are interspersed and occasionally hard to connect, there is a decided flow to the work. "Yankee Bayonet" leads into "O Valencia!" with elegance and fluidity, the former being about lovers that are parted but never truly apart. Laura Veirs adds excellent vocals to this call-and-response scrapbook of letters not so far removed from modern times and families being separated by our country's military endeavors. The production also becomes surprisingly more "funky" with "The Perfect Crime #2." Here, Ocean's Eleven is reconstructed amidst rhythms that are, dare I say, nearly danceable, something we could not have expected from a band consistently favoring upright bass and organ to slithery basslines. It's more than a bit strange, but they are further characterizing themselves as a band willing to take risks.

Of course, not all of these risks pay off immediately. The nearly hard-rock feel of "When the War Came" sounds wildly out of place in this set of songs and is rather agitating on the first few listens. It is as if Meloy and multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk hastily decided to place an edgy, yet unimpressive b-side in the midst of a cohesive-sounding piece. "Summersong" is another downer, allowing a homage to summer love to flounder in mediocrity, Meloy's uncharacteristically tepid poetry merely bobbing in oceanic calmness like a buoy before the repitition allows it all to be 'swallowed by a wave.' "Sons and Daughters" suffers from the same repetitive droning and is a bit of a downer on which to end the album.

The Crane Wife is jam-packed with hyper-literate verses that will have you searching for your Oxford Unabridged (just to get you started, "cormorants" and "patagon") but as previously noted with this band, they do not attempt to overshoot their audience and all tunes are meant to appeal to both lax and critical listener. Newcomers may be put off by Meloy's nasal vocals and the surprisingly dark slant of the songs within, but maneuver past it and through this hour-long pair of novellas and there are a lot of surprises to be found. You may not be humming and tapping your foot for a while, but the entire piece settles into an unassumingly good album, crafted to inform as well as entertain. This noble a pursuit is rarely executed with such sonorous profundity, so give it a listen without giving time to appreciate the subtle humor of this last sentence.

Release date: October 3, 2006
Label: Capitol
Rating: 8.3 / 10

On the web: http://www.decemberists.com/
[RMR]