Friday, October 06, 2006

Why Labels Do Not Matter

Mr. Morford is being a little antagonistic and egging me on to post. Truth is, he's right; I do have something to talk about. So I'm by and large a big Decemberists fan. I like their music, and so I was very excited by their new release The Crane Wife. Of course, the big news wasn't that one of the most inventive and original bands of the decade had a new release; no, it was that this release was on a *major label*. The Decemberists were abandoning Kill Rock Stars! Soon the Second Angel would pour forth his vial upon the sea, right?

As it turns out, no, not so much. The Decemberists, though their new album falls a bit short of true brilliance, aptly debunk one of the great principles of the Indie Music school of thought: any given collection of music is automatically better when released on anything but a major label. Because except for a few missteps, The Crane Wife is probably their best album to date. So guess what? The transition to Columbia didn't make them suddenly suck.

This CD starts with "The Crane Wife Part 3," which is actually the last third of the musical adaptation of the Japanese folk tale of the same name. You're probably familiar with it, so listen carefully to the lyrics so you can catch the story. This first song is moving and emotional, and it's musically satisfying. About three minutes into it, I started thinking "If this whole album is this good, then we've got something amazing on our hands."

Then I heard "The Island."

I'm not going to lie, I'm surprised I didn't start breathing heavily when I heard this one for the first time. As a huge fan of "The Tain," of course I was ecstatic to find what basically amounts to "The Tain's Little Brother" in the middle of a full length album. I'm not going to talk much about this track, but suffice it to say that it's almost twelve minutes of pure brilliance from start to finish. And any band who can incorporate a Tempest allusion and a "Whiskey in the Jar" tribute within a few minutes of each other is something special indeed.

"Yankee Bayonet" is very good, taking us to the Civil War via a folky male-female duet. "O Valencia!" is unfortunately less good. There's nothing wrong with it musically, and it's put together very well, but it just toes the line of "not interesting." How many modern-day retellings of Romeo and Juliet do we really need? And how many stories of lost love can the Decemberists churn out? "The Crane Wife" and "Yankee Bayonet" are both love-lost stories, but more sincere and inventive than "O Valencia!" It's not a bad song per se, but there are about four tracks I would have picked ahead of this one to make the first single out of.

Then we really get into the doldrums of the album. "The Perfect Crime #2" is sadly the inevitable track that's going to give Mr. I'm-Better-Than-You-Because-I-Discovered-This-Band-Before-You-Even-
Knew-Indie-Music-Existed a little ammunition to cry out his "Holy crap, the Decemberists suck now just because they're on a major label" lament. There are a handful of people who will defend this song; I fail to see its musical merit. I feel like half the song is Colin repeating the words "The perfect, the perfect, the perfect, the perfect crime" over and freaking over again. Even if that's not the exact proportion, the fact that it seems like that makes it a bad piece of music. It's frustratingly repetitive and not at all imaginative, which is not something I ever thought I would say about a Decemberists song.

Next, we hear "When the War Came," which nobody but me seems to have any issue with. Maybe I'm biased against the horrendously bad trumpet lick in the chorus, but that combined with the insistent banging of the guitar riff just results in a musically jarring song. Luckily, now, the album begins its ascent back into good musical quality. I have to say that I'm not a huge fan of "Shankill Butchers" either, but it's certainly better than the two tracks preceeding it. The fact that it's based off real events is cool, and the musical atmosphere created by the song--a sort of unsettling and creepy bedtime tune--definitely works given the subject matter. But this song, more than any other on the album, just lacks energy. It doesn't go much of anywhere.

After all this, we're refreshed with the brilliance of "Summersong." This is an absolutely delightful song, as imagistic and lyrically deep as any of the Decemberists' best work. It works on a variety of levels, too: are these happy times that necessarily will end eventually? Or sad ones, in reminiscence of the better ones? What's getting swallowed by a wave: the summer itself, or some ideal that it represents? This is probably the best (non-twelve minute) track on the album: it's beautiful and catchy, and as deep as you want it to be.

"The Crane Wife 1 and 2" provides the first two thirds of the already-finished fable, and delivers well. Finally, "Sons and Daughters" is a light, hopeful, and optimistic song to end the album; it has the happy effect of leaving the message that there's always something to look forward to.

This album does add an interesting dynamic to the Decemberists fanbase. In the past, we had never seen a truly bad song from them. There were boring songs, and un-brilliant ones, certainly; never an awful one. So in the past we could tolerate an "Of Angels and Angles" in return for a "The Infanta." How many "The Perfect Crime #2"s are we willing to accept if we're going to get a "The Island" and a "Summersong" out of the deal?

All in all, with the notable exception of the middle two tracks, this album is definitely worth listening to. To remind everyone (Zach and Enrique, I know you're interested in going), Decemberists concert on the 27th, 9 pm, at the Tabernacle. It should be great.

Currently listening: Sam's Town, the Killers (review soon to follow)

1 comment:

-- Zach said...

What time is the concert that night? I may try to do a double whammy by going to part of the swing dance being held at GT (also because I'm a member of GTDA and probably expected to go).