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ISSUE 120 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/13/2006

Decemberists’ storytelling delights

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Decemberists must certainly have been feeling the pressure of skyrocketing fame over the past few months. With the slow build over their first four albums, it seemed that the group would have time to adjust to stardom without over-inflating their heads or losing their smart nerd-rock edge. All that changed with Picaresque, which shot the band into the closest thing to super-stardom that indie rock can provide. Naturally, the pressure to create a follow-up masterpiece was great.

And they've done it.

The Crane Wife, which was released on Oct. 3, marks the brainy, Portland-based rockers’ first album on a major label. Despite the move away from their Kill Rock Stars record label roots and their collaboration with producer Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie fame), the group has created a fabulously moody, emotionally charged masterpiece.

The disc is arranged in a manner similar to one of their previous releases, The Tain, this time including other songs in between parts of the story. The Crane Wife centers around an old Japanese tale about a man who finds a wounded crane and helps her regain her strength. When the man releases the crane, she returns to him as a woman and he marries her.

In order to make money, the wife begins to weave beautiful silk garments, allowing her husband to sell them at market under the condition that he will never watch her weave them. As they sell the clothes and make a comfortable living, her husband, blinded by greed, makes her weave more and more, oblivious to the fact that as his wife's workload increases, her health diminishes. One day, he is overcome by curiosity and looks in on her weaving. He is shocked to see that the wife has been the crane all along, plucking her feathers to make the silk. She sees that he has violated his word, flies out the window and never returns.

The album contains a three-part retelling of the tragedy. It opens with the last part of the story. I initially didn't like this format. While the song itself is fluid and beautiful, its placement as the opening track didn't seem to set up the album correctly. On subsequent listens, it became clear that the anachronistic organization of the narrative is really the best way to go. Breaking up the story helps ease the emotional blow of the tale, preventing The Crane Wife from reducing listeners to inconsolable tears (though I admit I still shed some serious tears during "The Crane Wife 2"). Placing "The Crane Wife 3" at the beginning of the album also allows the listener to feel some sympathy for the husband, who may have been a bit of a jerk, but certainly never meant to hurt his wife.

The band gets their Neutral Milk Hotel on throughout nearly the whole album. "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" in particular lays the soaring, sweetened folk-pop on thick. Lead singer and tale-teller Colin Meloy even emulates lead singer Jeff Mangum's lazy enunciation towards the end of the song. Neutral Milk Hotel's pacing and structure is also echoed in all three parts of "The Crane Wife." However, think of the emulation as a favorable reflection on folk-pop's looming behemoth. Think of it as an homage, not a rip-off.

The album's strongest (and most familiar to long-time fans) feature is its characterization of a broad range of personae. Lovers in "Yankee Bayonet" feel intensely lonely within their regrettable predicament; the leading man in "O, Valencia" carries his vendetta into the afterlife and a mobster eternally laments his misfortune in "The Perfect Crime." For the wide range and far reach of Meloy's characters, none of them feel overtly contrived, each one roaming about in his or her own box until the archetypal end that each will inevitably (and predictably) face.

With the sheer mass of stories told on the album, something should feel out of place. The only song that comes close is "When the War Came." It fits in melodically, and the lyrical placement on the album makes good sense, but the harsh guitar sound doesn't do it for me. Perhaps it's too soon after nu-metal, but something about Chris Funk's guitar just makes my skin crawl uncomfortably.

Any misstep on the album is soon forgotten, and heartache is made right in the end. Even after the draining, intense sadness of the 11-minute ballad "The Crane Wife 1 and 2," the sweet, five-minute summation of "Sons & Daughters" closes up the album on a high note.

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