"The Crane Wife," the Capitol Records debut by Portland's
orchestral pop band the Decemberists, is the best Jethro Tull album
since "Heavy Horses" in 1978.
Some may read that as a joke or a put-down, but it's really a
compliment: I've never been afraid to admit to my past as a
progressive-rock geek, albeit one who loved "London Calling" by the
Clash as much as "Close to the Edge" by Yes. Decemberists bandleader
Colin Meloy is a man after my own heart -- though he doesn't quite
share my level of devotion to vintage Tull.
"A lot of that comes from Jenny [Conlee], our keyboard and
accordion player, who is a sworn Jethro Tull and ELP fan," Meloy
says, laughing. "But there were a lot of good things about
progressive rock, and it's the same with British folk-rock during
that era. Steeleye Span, later in the '70s, was turning into kind of
a costume farce or a Disneyland ride, but that's not to say the
initial impulse wasn't right. The same can be said of prog: It
started out in a really great way -- creating ambitious, complicated
music -- and then it turned into this kind of elitist thing, where
to play this kind of rock 'n' roll, you needed a degree in music.
That's where the reaction kicked in, and it was a very strong
reaction, obviously, because it birthed punk rock."
"Prog became something that nobody wanted to name-check -- and
even to this day, it's still that way with ELP," Meloy says. "We
don't do it as a way to set ourselves apart from our audience and
say, 'Hey, look what we can do,' showing our musical muscle. It's
really because it should be interesting to listen to, and it's kind
of a captivating way to tell a series of stories."
The strength of the Decemberists' storytelling, the evocative
nature of Meloy's lyrics (he has a degree in creative writing) and
the group's indelible melodies are what links it to the best
progressive rock of the past, as well as setting it apart from much
of the current rock scene.
A native of Missoula, Mont., Meloy formed the band in 2000 after
moving to Portland -- the current lineup is completed by guitarist
Chris Funk, bassist Nate Query, drummer John Moen and
multi-instrumentalist Lisa Molinaro -- taking the name from the 1825
Russian uprising, as well as one of the most literary and symbolic
months. Three indie albums and several EPs followed, earning
accolades for some of the most lush and inventive music this side of
the Arcade Fire, and the band signed to Capitol last year.
"We wanted to deliver in a way that people don't necessarily do
when they're making their major-label debut," Meloy says. "We wanted
it to be quintessentially a Decemberists record, which in my mind
means doing things even more so on your own terms, except with more
To that end, the band tapped Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie
to co-produce, and Meloy drew inspiration for the songwriting from
the story of the Crane Wife, an ancient Japanese folk tale involving
a wounded bird, a special romance and a magical cloth.
"It sometimes gets misconstrued as a concept record, but it's
very loosely one, if at all, just because the title track happens to
be these three songs that kind of bookend the record. There is a
deliberate connection there, some sort of through-line that's
supposed to run through the whole thing, though it's not necessarily
detailing the story of the crane wife through the whole album."
Sorry, Colin, but you can't help but think "concept album" when
the disc's second track is a 12-minute, ridiculously elaborate yet
relentlessly rocking four-part suite titled "The Island: Come and
See / The Landlord's Daughter / You'll Not Feel the Drowning." "As
I was rambled / Down by the water," Meloy sings in one of
several climactic moments. "I spied in sable / The landlord's
daughter / Produced my pistol, then my saber / To make no whistle,
or thou will be murdered!" Show me another rock band today that
uses the word "saber," much less "sable" or "thou"!
"Well, old folk songs certainly use the word," Meloy says,
laughing again. This ability to not to take himself too seriously is
one of the last two factors that set his group apart. "I always
think that half the fun of these songs is that there is always a
little bit of a sense of humor there, and it's sort of fun to play
the part -- to write a song that maybe the syntax suggests that it
may have been written centuries prior."
The other thing that makes this album special, and the
Decemberists' finest moment yet: Much more driving rhythms than the
group has had in the past.
"I think a lot of that is due to having a different drummer than
on 'Picaresque' " in 2005, Meloy says. "Rachel [Blumberg] is much
more of a feel drummer, a character drummer, and John is definitely
more of a rock drummer. ... So it just comes across as a little bit
stronger maybe. It's still the same in that I come to the band with
basically an acoustic version of the songs in demo form, with a few
suggestions here and there for directions. But for the most part, on
this one, we just kind of set up in the studio in a circle and
busted through the songs."
The best progressive rock, it must be said, never skimped on the
second half of that equation, delivering powerful riffs and a tough
rhythmic wallop along with its aspirations toward high art. Just go
back and listen to those early '70s Jethro Tull, Yes, ELP and
Genesis albums if you doubt it. Or better yet, break out the
headphones and the black light and listen to "The Crane Wife," loud