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The Decemberists
The Crane Wife
Capitol Records

The venerable Decemberists, one of modern music's pioneering bands, released The Crane Wife in 2006 to near-universal acclaim. By almost any standard, the album is wildly successful, burying its few weak moments under a deluge of ingenious ideas. The band is tighter than ever, and songwriter Colin Meloy pens what might be his most ambitious and impressive set of lyrics. Still, compared to its three stunning predecessors, the band's most ambitious album also turns out to be its most flawed.

Meloy thrives in anachronism, folklore, and mythology. With a voice that seems to come from a time and place far removed from ours, he uses archaic and obscure vocabulary as if it were common speech. The most striking difference between The Crane Wife and the band's previous work is its studio polish. Co-producers Chris Walla and Tucker Martine helped achieve a clean sound befitting a band recently signed to Capitol Records, but the songs on The Crane Wife are hardly mainstream. Most of the album benefits from the added craftsmanship, but misguided production also contributes to some of the most awkward and uninspired moments in the band's catalog.

The album opens with the shimmering "The Crane Wife, Pt. 3" before the band embarks on the album's first epic, the elaborately-titled, three-part "The Island: Come And See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel The Drowning." It is the most ambitious piece of work in the band's catalog. After an overlong instrumental introduction, the track's first segment features a driving melody and the album's wildest lyrics. Lines like these are a joy to hear: "A briar cradle rocks its babe to sleep, / its contents watched by Sycorax / and Patagon in parallax." The second portion falters with an instrumental climax weighed down by an overblown arrangement and irritating keyboard solo, but then gives way to the beautiful, elegiac closing segment.

After the buoyant "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" and the too-good-for-radio single "O Valencia!", Meloy offers what could be the weakest track on any Decemberists album. "The Perfect Crime No. 2" contains none of the elements that make Meloy's songwriting so impressive. The words are labored, the melody is weak, and the thick production sounds so modern that it has none of the glorious anachronism of the band's best work. If there are any doubts about Meloy's abilities, though, they are put to rest on the transcendent epic "The Crane Wife, Pts. 1 & 2." An evocative narrative closely based on the Japanese folk tale that inspired the album, it ranks with the band's best work.

Meloy's imaginative songwriting and gift for melody, coupled with the versatile musicianship of his fellow Decemberists, make The Crane Wife a truly unique experience. The band is carving a permanent niche in music history, and doing so at a frenetic pace. All of the band's albums are remarkably unified pieces of work, and they are released so frequently that it's hard to complain about the occasional weak track. Ultimately, the Decemberists are so original that they are beyond criticism: there is no other band that can make this music, and it's hard to imagine there will ever be a Decemberists album that doesn't deserve our full attention.

-Dan Warren

Track Listing:
1. The Crane Wife, Pt. 3
2. The Island: Come And See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel The Drowning
3. Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)
4. O Valencia!
5. The Perfect Crime No.2
6. When The War Came
7. Shankill Butchers
8. Summersong
9. The Crane Wife, Pts. 1 & 2
10. Sons & Daughters

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