2006 / Music

Review: Decemberists Use Imagination To Win Converts

Portland Group Releases Major-Label Debut

Napoleon Bonaparte once said that imagination rules the world, and the copious amounts of it employed on the new album by the Decemberists might give them at least global domination of indie rock.

Photo: Kill Rock Stars

Photo: Kill Rock Stars

Watching Tom Waits make the promotional rounds to pimp his new three-disc set of rarities, one can’t help but feel pity for his unwitting interviewers.

While most celebrity guests who appear on programs like “The Late Show with David Letterman” or “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” play by the established rules — all anecdotes are pre-approved and thoroughly rehearsed — Waits is as slippery and inscrutable an interviewee as they come. When his host tries to pin him down on some fact, Waits gracefully slides away with a non sequitur, circuitous story about some weirdo or bizarre law on the books in Kansas. In fact, Waits’ presence on the “Daily Show” last Tuesday left the ever-pithy Stewart as awestruck as a fanboy.

Waits might be a headache to chat with in such contrived scenarios, but his unique approach to conversations or songwriting has, in part, given him a career despite consistently lousy record sales. His value is his imagination, which has offered listeners the rare hope of conquering another contrivance: songwriting.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said that imagination rules the world, and one suspects that a band like the Decemberists would thoroughly agree if the words “indie rock” were inserted into the quotation.

In 2005, the Portland, Ore., quintet won over the Pitchfork crowd with “Picaresque,” an album of curiously authentic sea chanties and folk murder ballads. Perhaps no band since Waits has so thoroughly circumvented the idea of adding more navel-gazing songs and offered listeners such artfully cinematic escapes from reality. Now with major label wind blowing in their sails, the group has released a new album, “The Crane Wife,” that continues their lyrical flights of fancy but bears down on drafting robust, attractive melodies to reel listeners in.

The man commissioned to accomplish this mission is Colin Meloy, the Decemberists’ yearning-voiced singer and primary songwriter. To help, Meloy and company wisely returned to an old friend, Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla, to produce “The Crane’s Wife.” Walla helmed their last record and he takes an equally loving approach to the hour-long album’s 10 new songs. As was the case on “Picaresque,” a majority of these new tracks are quasi-period pieces with distinct traces of folk, blues, country and Irish music. However, the songs are now much more hook-oriented and contain elements that suggest a greater influence of New Wave and even Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

The sense that modernity is creeping anachronistically into these historical reconstructions is subtle in some cases. On paper, “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” looks like a poetic exchange between Civil War-era lovebirds. Listen to the song, and its pop structure and the timelessness of the emotions expressed give it a contemporary resonance. The cut begins with some acoustic guitar chords (think John Mellencamp by way of Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train”), but swiftly changes direction into uncharted waters. With a lilting melody swelling behind the singing, guest Laura Veirs pinch hits as Meloy’s nasally vocal counterpart and the duo blend to form warm, pop harmonies.

Meloy keeps the vocal assistance to inside the band for the album’s closer “Sons And Daughters.” The song is a gospel-tinged sing-along and the frontman uses keyboard/accordion player Jenny Conlee and some of the guys in the group as counterpoints and then slowly stacks all the voices together. Conlee’s accordion wheezes in the background and a jazz bass line and a kind of Celtic drumming build with the voices until the song reaches its apex. In this case, the complexity of the arrangement gives away that this song isn’t a 19th century original.

 

Meloy masterfully combines his lyrical dexterity with his growing pop smarts on the downbeat “Summersong.” Starting with its Ringo Starr drum fill, the song strolls along with an electric guitar notes left to shimmer and the accordion hovering. It doesn’t have an obvious hook, but a series of similar melodic phrases distributed between the guitar, accordion or Meloy’s voice that compliment each other and keep the track moving. His lyrics conjure and contrast surprising images (“Lips parting like a flag all unfurled”) and adeptness at alliteration (“boats bobbing in the blue of the bay” or “dead sailors slowly slipping to sleep”).

 

The second, “The Landlord’s Daughter,” is one part ’70s, Rick Wakeman keyboard freakout and another galloping Irish folk song. The finale is “You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” which is a sorrowful, 19th century ballad played on nylon-string guitar, viola and violin. Each segment is distinct and doesn’t explicitly interconnect, but the transitions are so delicate and the music so powerful that any concerns about “The Island” needing an overarching theme should be forgotten.

Few who listen to “The Crane’s Wife” would think it forgettable. The album is a creative step forward and should solidify the Decemberists’ hold on underground rock fans. By striving to be storytellers rather than just besting an abstract Motown formula, the band has laid a solid foundation for a career like cult hero Waits. With their path chosen, what the group has to look forward to is the curious and bewilderment from most music listeners, but devotion from fans who covet imagination over outdoing the flavor of the month.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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