Artist: The Decemberists
Album: The Crane Wife
Comments: A poor farmer, with no wife or family, is walking along in the woods one cold winter evening when he comes across a wounded crane. The farmer takes the crane back to his house and cares for the creature until it is healthy enough to fly away. The day comes when the crane is healthy enough to fly away, and even though the farmer is sad to see the bird go, he lets it. The next day, a beautiful girl shows up at his door and becomes his wife. The wife promises to make them both rich, but in order to do so, she must go in a closed room for hours a day, and if the farmer ever looks at what she is doing, she will leave him forever.
Now, if this is how I started a review for any other band, a lot of people would be confused. However, if you are all familiar with the Decemberists, then this is business as usual. And those of you out there concerned that the hyper-literate folk group were going to lose their affinity for story telling after their jump from indie label Kill Rock Stars to major label Capitol, well put those silly worries to rest.
The story outlined above, an ancient Chinese proverb, provides the main tracks and title for the Decemberists latest effort. It is a bit of a departure from the pop/folk bard-ing of “Picturesque”, their best album to date. Truth be told, this album has more in common with Pink Floyd or Yes than any other influence. With such powerful prog influences pushed to the forefront of the song writing, expect some long songs.
Some songs benefit from the length. The hands down standout track on this album is over 12 minutes long. The monstrous multi movement piece is called “The Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel the Drown” and it boats some of vocalist Colin Meloy’s most loose vocal work to date, not to mention the most ballsy keyboard solo this side of “Roundabout”. Other winners include the funky groove of “The Perfect Crime 2” and “The Crane Wife 3” which captures the sting of regret and the personal sin of arrogance with gentle beauty.
However, this album is not without flaws. Meloy, with all his flair for song writing and story telling, can get on some nerves. His songs never reflect anything personal or truly identifiable, because he conveys all his feelings and emotions through characters and by doing so never has to put himself out on a limb emotionally. One thing that really appealed to me about “Picturesque” is how personal the album felt; that feeling is lost for me here. He almost seems too caught up in the story of the songs to worry about the sound of the songs. And where “The Island…” benefited from its massive length, “The Crane Wife 1 and 2” lags because of it; boasting some of the albums most brilliant flashes but never delivering consistently. One song that really could have used a little more time to develop is “When the War Came” which builds until it threatens to spill over, but rather breaks down into a mess of un-listenable noise, despite having the best chorus on the album.
“The Crane Wife” is more fine work from the Decemberists. On this album they are able to thumb their noses at those who questioned their integrity for signing to a major lable, and at the same time expand their sound. They remain the most literate band of the last 30 years. However, their greatest strength is also their biggest weakness; until they can find a balance between their grand tales and their real lives, they will never be perfect. But perfection can wait; the Decemberists have already proven themselves as one of the best folk acts, best pop acts, and now a pretty darn good progressive act. The Crane Wife won’t floor you, but it also won’t leave your CD player for a few weeks.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Key Tracks: “The Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel the Drown” “ The Crane Wife 3” “The Perfect Crime 2” “Sons and Daughters”
Worth The Money: You bet, I would recommend new listeners also pick up “Picturesque”