Wednesday, March 8, 2017
The Decemberists - The Crane Wife (2006)
Jim DeRogatis wrote that The Decemberists’ album The Crane Wife was the greatest album Jethro Tull recorded since 1978’s Heavy Horses. Intending the remark to linger as a compliment intrigued me and, more than anything else, prompted me to investigate. The band’s popularity among a younger set admittedly daunted me some. I’m old and limited enough where guarding against succumbing to clichés about musical styles is a recurring struggle. My youthful longings often ram head first into my artistic prejudices and hilarity never results. Younger bands running, chest puffed out, into the ever-lovin’ arms of traditional music elicit my raised eyebrow. A few pass muster. More serve up bloodless platters hitting all the right turns and notes, but lacking any of the mystery and far-seeing wonder threaded deep into traditional music. I’m not so sure about DeRogatis’ estimation of The Crane Wife, but The Decemberists pass my personal smell test.
It begins with the stirring third iteration of the album’s title track. “The Crane Wife 3” setting a compelling stage for everything following it. There’s a tasteful ascending quality in the arrangement Colin Meloy’s relatively unconventional voice neatly dovetails into and the concluding crashing electric guitar chords provide the song with an unexpectedly dissonant exclamation point. The second of the album’s two song cycles, “The Island: Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning”, is inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in part, and clocks in at nearly the twelve and half minute mark. Jenny Conlee’s keyboard work, particularly on Hammond organ, is an often stunning musical highlight of the cycle, but the band’s unerring sense for solid song construction gives it coherency and a profoundly dramatic effect. “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” features Meloy trading off vocal lines with guest vocalist Laura Veirs and their dueling voices make for quite an effective dialogue. There’s a nice bounce to this track and the musical demeanor sharply contrasts with the frequently fatalistic and frightening lyrical content.
Meloy’s voice often recalls Robyn Hitchcock’s emotive bray and few songs invoke that more clearly than “O Valencia!” and, especially, its follow-up “The Perfect Crime #2”. The former song has a robust chorus and sleek verses nicely building towards those inevitable crescendos. The latter track relies much more on Jenny Conlee’s keyboard work than the first and has brisk, streamlined brevity ideally suited for the song’s mildly uptempo pace. “When the War Came”. Few songwriters can hope to imagine the transposing of experiences that Colin Meloy manages with this track inspired by the World War Two siege of Leningrad, but the band conjures up an a performance full of the appropriate gravitas while never shirking its duty to musically entertain audiences. The stark intimacy of “Shankill Butchers” has a bitter beauty, despite its dark subject matter, thanks to the discreet instrumental touches adding just enough atmosphere to help put the lyric over.
The melodic strengths of the album’s briefest song, “Summersong”, has an easygoing pastoral beauty that The Decemberists carry off with just the right touch. Meloy has a rare vocal gift insofar as he’s able to inhabit the lightest and darkest lyrics with the same commanding presence. The album’s second extended song cycle, the title song, concludes with the eleven minute plus “The Crane Wife 1 & 2”. It steadily ascends from a muted beginning until blossoming into an expertly constructed and tasteful arrangement beautifully ornamented by Conlee’s Hammond organ touches. There’s some practically Keith Emerson or Jon Lord touches from Conlee that simply can’t be ignored; the quality they bring songs like this is inestimable. The final track on The Crane Wife, “Sons & Daughters”, works as a perfect bookend when considered against the album opener. It initially eschews the opener’s spartan theatrics in favor of a closer, much more intimate approach and achieves its final effects through a process of accumulation rather than showing all of its cards at once. The Crane Wife, ultimately, deserves its fulsome praise thanks to the cohesiveness of its presentation and the considerable musicality and intelligence informing its touch. The Decemberists, eleven years after its release, are still defined by this epochal release for good reason.