Sell-out alert! Condition Red!
The Crane Wife is the major-label debut and fourth album from Colin Meloy and his band of eccentric and anglophilic folksters, and mucho changes are afoot [See here for my enthusiastic review of album number three (the best of the bunch)]. The biggest: The Decemberists have become--cue scare music--a rock band.
Well, sort of. If you just listened to the first couple of tracks, you might think that you'd stumbled upon a long-lost J. Tull or Gentle Giant album, but in fact, production aside, TCW as a whole is a mix of the old, the new and points in-between, and a pretty successful one too.
About said production: gone is the bright, underproduced mutant-folksy sound, replaced by an old-school rock aesthetic that pumps up the (electric) bass and drums big time. I think that the material must have dictated this, given that Death Cab For Cutie guy Christopher Walla remains in the (co-)producer's chair. The driving bottom-end makes the album sound more electrified than it actually is; yes, there's a prominent role given to the (Hammond) organ, but there's still a lot of acoustic guitar, stringed things and accordian/hurdy-gurdy. The sound holds together quite well given the range of material and mood on offer, and is actually very detailed, which you might not notice at first listen because of the (by comparison) thunderous rhythm section. Meloy's voice is pushed back in the mix, and he's reined in some of his particular idiosyncrasies and sounds fuller and better than ever.
The beefier production goes hand-in-hand with a new-found reliance upon the groove (the catchy "The Perfect Crime #2" is a prime example) as well as a confident simplicity, coupled with a preference for internal consistency over showy displays of generic savvy. A comparison of the deliberate three-chord opening track "The Crane Wife 3" with its flamboyant Picaresque counterpart "The Infanta" or the sprawling "Shanty For The Arethusa" from Her Majesty illustrates the latter two characteristics clearly. It's an approach that shifts the balance in favour of the sweep and away from the individual dramatic moments. The biggest beneficiary of this is probably the spacious two-part "The Crane Wife 1 & 2," one of the album highlights and new ground broken for the group.
It isn't all clear sailing, though, for which reason I rate The Crane Wife a notch lower than its immediate predecessor. The long, multi-part suite "The Island," from whence came my Tull reference, is a big surprise with it's '70s lockstep electric piano and bass, as well as wild organ lines, but isn't entirely convincing. It highlights the one principal complaint I have about the record, which is that the playing isn't loose enough for the style at hand or to counterbalance the sonic heaviness. New(?) drummer John Moen and bassist Nate Query both have a tendency to worship the groove too much and aren't given to a lot of interjections or interesting interplay. That said, part II of the suite, "The Landlord's Daughter" kicks ass in a way that the band has never done previously. "Summersong" is another otherwise pleasant one that's a little too stiff and lacking in dynamic contrast for its own good.
His-'n'-her duet "Yankee Bayonet" and infectious single "O Valencia" are both top notch even treading as they do more familiar Decemberists territory. Both have their roots in Picaresque, with the former reminiscent of the folksy "We Both Go Down Together" both in terms of sound and love-beyond-this-life lyrical conceit, and the latter bringing back the loser Morrisey-esque narrator from "This Sporting Life" (with more drama-queen bile) in a driving pop song. Also familiar is "Shankhill Butchers," the one purely folky arrangement here, which is okay but doesn't compare favourably to the gothic "From My Own True Love" from Picaresque. "When The War Came" is decidedly unfamiliar, a ponderous hard-rocker with bagpipe guitar to boot; good, but again a little stiffly executed. The sing- and clap-along folk raga "Sons And Daughters" is basically one big crescendo and rounds off the album nicely.
I realize this review is kind of all over the place...but, this is The Decemberists, after all. Don't blame me.
The Crane Wife is a brave, weighty and surprising record that's lacking just that wee bit of fun and bounce that we've come to expect from the band. Very much recommended, even with its faults.
mp3: The Decemberists--"The Perfect Crime #2" (from The Crane Wife)
mp3: The Decemberists--"The Crane Wife 1 & 2" (from The Crane Wife)
mp3: The Decemberists--"The Infanta" (from Picaresque)
mp3: The Decemberists--"From My Own True Love" (from Picaresque)