Colin Meloy and his brave Decemberists made the unlikely jump to a major label after 2005's excellent Picaresque, a move that surprised both longtime fans and detractors of the band. While it is difficult to imagine the suits at Capitol seeing dollar signs in the eyes of an accordion- and bouzouki-wielding, British folk-inspired collective from Portland, OR, that dresses in period Civil War outfits and has been known to cover Morrissey, it's hard to argue with what the Decemberists have wrought from their bounty. The Crane Wife is loosely based on a Japanese folk tale that concerns a crane, an arrow, a beautiful woman, and a whole lot of clandestine weaving. The record's spirited opener and namesake picks off almost exactly where Picaresque left off, building slowly off a simple folk melody before exploding into some serious Who power chords. This is the first indication that the band itself was ready to take the loosely ornate, reverb-heavy Decemberists sound to a new sonic level, or rather that producers Tucker Martine and Chris Walla were. On first listen, the tight, dry, and compressed production style sounds more like Queens of the Stone Age than Fairport Convention, but as The Crane Wife develops over its 60-plus minutes, a bigger picture appears. Meloy, who along with Destroyer's Dan Bejar has mastered the art of the North American English accent, has given himself over to early-'70s progressive rock with gleeful abandon, and while many of the tracks pale in comparison to those on Picaresque, the ones that succeed do so in the grandest of fashions. Fans of the group's Tain EP will find themselves drawn to "Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel the Drowning" and "The Crane Wife, Pts. 1 & 2," both of which are well over ten minutes long and feature some truly inspired moments that echo everyone from the Waterboys and R.E.M. to Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, while those who embrace the band's poppier side will flock around the winsome "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," which relies heavily on the breathy delivery of Seattle singer/songwriter and part-time Decemberist Laura Veirs. Some cuts, like the English murder ballad "Shankill Butchers" and "Summersong" (the latter eerily reminiscent of Edie Brickell's "What I Am"), sound like outtakes from previous records, but by the time the listener arrives at the Donovan-esque (in a good way) closer, "Sons & Daughters," the less tasty bits of The Crane Wife seem a wee bit sweeter.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger