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October 10, 2006

Decemberists embark on folk tale adventure in Crane Wife

There’s something about summer camp that makes me tired. As a counselor a few years back, I had to sit through a summer camp production of the Japanese folk tale, The Crane Wife. I envied the lights at the start of the play because they had been killed, whereas I was sadly spared, only to witness a new high point in theatrical butchery. From a counselor’s point of view, this camp lacked both the ’90s appeal of Salute Your Shorts and the hilarity of Wet Hot American Summer. (No, I didn’t kill any campers. That isn’t to say the thought never crossed my mind.)

As you can imagine, when I first discovered that the title of the newest Decemberists album would be The Crane Wife, part of me was overcome with repulsion. The trauma of that summer play remained branded in my mind. Perhaps this album could help cleanse my psyche.

According to front man Colin Meloy, the album revolves around the cycle of the ancient folk tale. I don’t really want to bore you with the details of the story; I would if it weren’t for the fact that I have already blocked out the plot of The Crane Wife through therapy and cold showers. If you are really curious about the actual tale, you can always check Wikipedia. I hear it is the most reliable source of facts since Jayson Blair worked for The New York Times.

On the album, Meloy’s voice appears to have graduated from the nasal soprano of Picaresque to a borderline castrato. Despite this development, the songs retain the catchiness of previous albums; Meloy carefully walks the musical tightrope between sensitivity and whininess. An array of instruments and melodies are used on the album with a great deal of success.

The mellow tenor of the album shifts briefly on the tracks in the middle of the album, like “When The War Came,” “O Valencia,” and “The Perfect Crime 2.” The seventh track, “Shankill Butchers,” revisits the more acoustic and ethereal leanings present at the start of the album. This spooky track makes the listener wait for a crescendo that will never come. In its restraint, the eerie qualities of “Shankill Butchers” are amplified. It is a perfect counterpoint to the three tracks that precede it and the three that follow it.

For me, the song that deserves an infinite amount of listens is “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then).” From the opening riff to the final note, the track—which features vocals by Laura Viers in a delicate male-female counterpart—is mesmerizing. None of the tracks are overly complex. The success of the album remains in its ability to garner an emotional response in the listener, and its appeal is embodied by Meloy’s ambition in tackling an ancient folk tale. He does so without sinking into the convenient swamp of pretension. The pop appeal remains and it is difficult to say whether or not this latest album is the best. It certainly is their most adventurous, but whether that will translate into commercial success is still unknown.

The smooth transitions between many of the songs serve to minimize the stress often placed on beginnings and ends. The tracks on The Crane Wife may come from different places, but they are woven together seamlessly, forming a rich musical tapestry. As a listener, I chose to let each song become a part of the next one—the circularity of the album and the story itself gives it no true starting place. By beginning with a different track each time, the character of the album changes while remaining enjoyable.

Part of me really likes the Decemberists’ album, while the other part just wants to forget the play at my summer camp, which remains the only blemish on an otherwise enjoyable experience. An indie rock record from The Decemberists will never erase the mental torture inflicted on me at the hands of ridiculously costumed eight-year-olds, but anything helps. Right?