The Crane Wife
I've come up with lot of kooky theories in my time; aliens stealing my thoughts via my toaster, Argos acting as an elaborate front for a massive organised crime racket, and "I Can't Believe It's Not Pesto" actually being a viable alternative to the real thing. But my latest one surely is a winner, the theory that there does exist, somewhere in the world, an indie ten commandments. I'm not sure what all of them are admittedly, but I'm pretty certain one of them is "thou shalt spend a vast amount of time and money on thine appearance in an effort to look like thou hasn't spent any time or money on thine appearance." And another one would be "thou must be authentic and REAL at all times."
There's no question that this is an iron-clad regulation. The Arctic Monkeys are "real", the Kooks are "real", the Kaiser Chiefs are "real." They are "gritty" and sing about "real" things about their lives, and this is applauded as being extraordinarily perceptive and ingenious, when really, you could say it shows a lack of imagination. Colin Meloy is a man who has imagination, he is also a man who doesn't
necessarily do "real." The yarns he spins on The Decemberists' latest LP, The Crane Wife, are haunting, macabre fragments of stories that fit into a gorgeous bigger picture. He shows a blatant disregard for the indie commandment of authenticity, and has thus created a compelling and unique record. Each track is a sketch based on life around the American Civil War; a time of turbulence and change, with more modern echoes than is comfortable. The tales bend from stirring, particularly on the three "The Crane Wife" songs that form the centrepiece of the album, to almost cheeky and ghoulish, "The Shankill Butchers" is a terrifying fable that could well have been written by Roald Dahl.
Lyrically, Meloy is peerless, all the songs are so pregnant with meaning that ten different people would give you thirteen different interpretations. Where the record occasionally falters, though, is in the music.
Don't get me wrong, the band do a fine job here, and display a new versatility with bouzouki's and accordions present for much of the record. Jenny Conlee's shimmering organ patterns are also a joy throughout, creating perfect backdrops to Meloy's dusty parables with a cinematic flair. The problem is though, the band often sound too restrained and sensible. "The Crane Wife 1" is a prime example. It builds and builds and leads the listener into expecting something really special, but it doesn't quite hit the mark, it is agonisingly close, but just isn't quite there. If the band were just a little less inhibited, this record, I believe would be a true classic. Sadly, as it stands, it's just a great record, but there's no shame in that is there?
This is the best folk-pop album since Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning because it cares not for piffling rules and commandments. The Decemberists know that "walking through town is quite scary" but they say it with a lot more style and class, and that's what makes them great. There won't be many better in 2007, I tell thee.