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The Decemberists - The Crane Wife Review

by Jordan Rodgers

From the beautiful opening bass line of The Crane Wife's opening track, "The Crane Wife 3," it is made clear that the Decemberists are back. Some might say that they never went away, but for me 2005's Picaresque was a serious disappointment, a record that substituted bombast and over-the-top instrumentation for the wonder and beauty that had once made the Decemberists one of my favorite bands. When it was announced that the Decemberists' new album would be recorded for a major record label (Capitol), I assumed that the Decemberists were dead - my dear little indie band had gone mainstream, and they'd never come back. Thank God I was wrong.

The Crane Wife is a wonderful piece of music from beginning to end, and surely one of the best of the year. The lyrics are still very much in the spirit of storytelling - lyricist Colin Meloy has a wonderful knack for making you empathize with the most bizarre characters, and when Laura Veirs pitches in in "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," it's almost too much folk-pop-storytelling goodness to take in at once. The much-talked-about literary quality of Meloy's lyrics are not nearly as prominent as they had been in the past, when the deft placement of words like "palanquin" and "oligarch" seemed to be the focus of the songs. Here, the focus is squarely on the moods the stories evoke, and simple single phrases such as "I will hang my head low" and "The winter's so long" carry the greatest emotional weight.

And really, the genius of this record lies in its simplicity. The Decemberists are exuberant musicians, willing to try anything, and their most common fault is taking this (admittedly admirable) aspect to far too great extremes. When they strip back and channel that exuberance into the creation of moods, some really brilliant music can result. The middle section of the record, "O Valencia!" (the best song on the record) and "The Perfect Crime #2," provide the best example of this. But the emotional epicenter of the album is "The Crane Wife 1 & 2." Its length (11+ minutes) might make you prepare yourself for a bombastic, theatrical piece after the example of "The Mariner's Revenge Song" or "The Tain," but it actually far more closely resembles the closer of their first album "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade." As soon as it seems to be reaching a loud, heavy climax, it calms back down, and simply reflects on itself for a few minutes, before reaching its second climax, this time with such emotional simplicity and directness that the final track, "Sons and Daughters," energetic though it is, almost gets swallowed up. A beautiful end to a beautiful record.

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