Positively Prog

November 5, 2006


  • "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 confidence."

    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 and often.