The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

The Decemberists
The Crane Wife

Listening to a Decemberists album is much more than just a satisfying musical experience. The resplendent melodies and eloquent lyrics sweep the listener away from the doldrums of everyday life into an enchanting universe where old-world characters merge with new-world musical motifs. The Decemberists have always had a flair for the dramatic, but it’s refined and realized more than ever on their amazing new album The Crane Wife, the group’s fourth full-length and first for a major label.

The Decemberists allure has always been their ability to weave intriguing stories into the fabric of their artistic folk-pop while mixing in touches of worldly musical forms like sea chanties, Irish jigs and The Smiths. And now the quintet from Portland, OR have seemingly pulled off the impossible. They have embellished their quaint and captivating indie-rock sound by integrating the intricate and complex cadences of old-school 70’s prog rock with vestiges of 80’s synth-rock polyrhythms, all without losing their distinctive charm.

While previous albums flaunt an assortment of stories and styles, The Crane Wife is a more cohesive effort with a revolving theme based on a Japanese folk tale of the same name. While a handful of songs are loosely based on the fable, furthering comparisons to the album-oriented prog-rock of decades past, there are still plenty of masterful murder ballads and tragic love songs, proving the Decemberists have not abandoned the genuine sounds that graced their three previous albums and won fans over.

Perhaps the most striking improvements are the inclusion of more electric guitars and the way the bass and keyboards have not only been turned up a notch, but have been given a chance to take more of a lead. This is immediately apparent on the opening track “The Crane Wife 3”. It ends with a deep and resonating bass and crisp guitar chords, but starts in typical Decemberists fashion. It gives us a glimpse into the story, hints at what’s to come, and is the perfect segue for the 12 minute opus “The Island: Come and See – The Landlord’s Daughter – You’ll Not Feel The Drowning”. A three part folk tale of it’s own told in progressive style with extended instrumental breaks mixing classical with indie-pop and rock. The rousing bass, staggering organ strokes and guitar swells were doubtlessly inspired by early Genesis, Pink Floyd and A Passion Play-era Jethro Tull. This track, and the closest thing to a title track, “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” are the centerpieces of the album and allow the artists the freedom to explore different genres together while sticking to their guns of producing intelligent, exquisite and effusive rock music. They even manage to squeeze some Talking Heads-style beats and slick bass grooves in on “The Perfect Crime #2”. “Yankee Bayonet (I will Be Home Then)”, along with “O Valencia”, “Summersong” and sing-along closer “Sons & Daughters” play more like “traditional” Decemberists with an array of bouzoukis, hurdy-gurdy’s, upright bass, glockenspiel, and hammered dulcimers spun together with indie-rock guitars in their usual style, only sharpened with a more focused and fuller production.

Each tale is expressively and articulately sung by periphrastic main singer/songwriter Colin Meloy, whose quavering faux-British accent and animated inflections enliven each song and endear the listener. He sings with such flair and feeling that he makes listening to “the perfect”, 39 times in a row, exciting instead of redundant. What band can you say that about??!!

I could continue this review by writing more about how The Decemberists’ jump to a major label may or may not help expand their audience and it may or may not have been the impetus for expanding their sound, but really you should stop reading, go immediately to your music seller of choice, and pick up the spectacular new album The Crane Wife so you can start enjoying the album of the year now!