The Crane Wife
The Music Box's #10 album of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2006, Volume 13, #12
Written by John Metzger
There’s no denying that many great bands have fallen victim to the pretentious excesses of progressive rock, though that’s not to say that, over the years, the ego-driven sub-genre also hasn’t produced some tremendously solid albums. Similarly, indie acts making the jump to a major label typically wind up diluting their core sound to the point where they no longer matter. On its fourth, full-length endeavor The Crane Wife, The Decemberists manages to sidestep both issues as it giddily plunges head first into the vortex, avoids all of the obstacles in its path, and comes up grinning.
Since its debut Castaways and Cutouts, The Decemberists slowly but surely has been refining its style, though its literate lyrics typically have outstripped its accompanying music. On The Crane Wife, however, the arrangements that the ensemble has concocted play a major role in relaying the stories that are told, and as a result, the outing is, both musically and lyrically, The Decemberists’ most accomplished and ambitious effort to date. Within the maelstrom of the three-part song cycle The Island, for example, swirling organ runs collide with pastoral folk as the band slams the dark textures of Pink Floyd into the British art-rock of Jethro Tull in order to conjure a thrilling and effective backdrop for its tale of rape and murder. Elsewhere, the ominous, angst-filled march of the protest anthem When the War Came is drawn directly from Radiohead’s OK Computer; the jangly Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then) finds guest vocalist Laura Veirs playing the role of Liz Phair to mastermind Colin Meloy’s Michael Stipe; The Perfect Crime #2 is shaded with elements of the Talking Heads’ edgy R&B; and O Valencia! is bathed in the theatrical pathos of Morrissey’s work.
As for The Crane Wife’s title tune, it is presented in a strange and convoluted fashion. With its Psychedelic Furs-imbued modern rock ambience, the gloomy third and final chapter of the revived Japanese folk tale opens the set, while the romantic thoughts of its first and second parts, which mix gentle beauty with grand majesty, are tackled toward the end of the collection. The song’s unconventional sequencing, combined with the recurring images of war that drift throughout the endeavor, successfully grants The Crane Wife the air of a larger conceptual work. Fueled by sparks of brilliance, they also elevate its lesser tracks and sufficiently bind The Decemberists’ bloodstained period pieces together. Whether the group can sustain its rapid evolution without succumbing either to arrogance or to commercial considerations remains to be seen. For now, at least, The Decemberists can take stock in knowing not only that it has moved forward without losing touch with its past, but also that it has created a boldly transfixing effort that ought to please fans of both classic and indie rock.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box