Decemberists The Crane Wife(Capitol Records) Buy it from Insound
The Decemberists have been on an upward career and artistic trajectory since their first EP was issued a mere 5 years ago. Their early work was often compared to Neutral Milk Hotel (this is how I found them) in a misguided attempt to classify them. The only thing the bands had in common was perhaps an amateurish approach to production and arch lyrics. It soon became clear that the Decemberists were their own band, specializing in seafaring tunes that seemed to reappear from some lost time like a ghost ship through fog. The band took a major leap forward with The Tain, an 18 minute epic ep, and last year's Picaresque, the steps that have catapulted them into the majors at Capital Records. The band was tighter than ever, the songs needed to be sung, and, as The Infanta demonstrated, the steamroller was headed this way.
So it should come as no surprise that The Crane Wife represents a consolidation of their successes and, inevitably, a levelling off in quality. The overall impression is of a band that knows they have hit upon a winning formula and have temporarily stopped moving forward in order to flesh it out a bit. Granted, longtime fans will notice the newfound prog tendencies of "The Island", with its arpeggio synths. I half expected to hear the dude from Manfred Mann playing Chopsticks in the instrumental break. But these leanings were already obvious on The Tain, if not from day one. Because if there is one thing this band proves again and again, it is that like the best prog rockers of old, they are masters of the long form. The best tunes on the album are once again the two that exceed ten minutes in length. Somehow, Colin Meloy packs his greatest urgency into the extended pieces, choosing to lay back on the shorter ones. The band rocks no harder than on the 12 minute "The Island", and sounds no more joyous than on the first section of the 11 minute "The Crane Wife 1&2".
The long songs consistently put the band into the upper ranks of working artists. The shorter ones fall more comfortably into the "quite good" category. There are exceptions. The opener, "The Crane Wife 3" is a delight, as is the smash hit single (sigh) "O Valencia". "Sons and Daughters" closes the album and is also an anthemic gem. On these tunes the band sounds like it has something at stake, something to lose. Elsewhere, Meloy's penchant for tunesmithing is apparent, but workmanlike. Credit should be given for going disco on "The Perfect Crime #2", where Colin repeatedly drives home the "perfect" refrain until he runs out of breath. But for the most part the band is sticking to what they know and do well.
I'm giving the album a solid rating mainly for the long ones, which rank with the best music produced by any rock/alt/indie/whatever band working today. The rest, as I said, is quite good. And that should be good enough.9 November, 2006 - 16:08 — Alan Shulman