Album Reviews- Decemberists and The Hold Steady

2006 continues to press along in its latter half with the releases of some exceptional albums. I’ve spent the past month enjoying these two. Here are my thoughts.

The Decemberists/ The Crane Wife, 9.2/ 10

Colin Meloy has already established himself as one of America’s best pure up-and-coming songwriters in the company of Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart and Badly Drawn Boy. On this, their fourth album, The Decemberists step up to the big leagues, popping out of the indie rock doldrums and signing with prestigious Capitol Records. How would the music adjust fans wonder? Thankfully, Meloy and company used this promotion as an excuse to upgrade not only their salaries but their musical and lyrical determination as well. This is easily their best album to date, and I say that having loved last year’s Picaresque (8.7) like it was family.

There is an element of tightness to this album in regards to the way in which it is wound. The Decemberists don’t forgo their psychedelic folk-rock backbone on this effort, but rather use it as layering for musical experimentation and expansion. The 12-minute second track “The Island” is actually three songs blended with perfect regard for tone. Beginning with the foreboding “Come and See”, the epic evolves into the more upbeat yet terrifying “The Landlord’s Daughter”, an intense rape tale with electronic keyboards and Meloy wailing. The climax of this song is absolutely possessive. Wow. After going through that, the track cools off into sad acoustic guitar ballad “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning”, as Meloy pleads, “Go to sleep now, little ugly/ Go to sleep now, little fool.” I’m pretty convinced that as 12-minute folk-rock tracks go, this one couldn’t be any more perfect.

Innovation doesn’t stop after the epic, as standout “The Perfect Crime #2” exhbits upbeat bluesey notes that work incredibly well as the band enters completely new territory musically and Meloy sings of thievery and murder. Tales of war aren’t exactly new territory for The Decemberists, but this time around they dive deeper and more specifically into their story-telling and musical choices. The slowly progressing, softly pounding “When The War Came” would play perfectly over a field of wounded and dead bodies from the front line, as Meloy professes “When the war came, the war came hard.” With almost Led Zepplin-esque characteristics and unprecedented darkness, this track rolls on into completely new musically territory as Meloy moans “With all the grain of Babylon!” into the finish. Scary stuff. Cool.

War tales aren’t isolated to this track, however. In possibly the greatest song they have ever written, the Decemberists really rock on “Yankee Bayonet”, as Meloy and guest singer Laura Veirs rotate verses as a pregnant wife and a probably dead civil war soldier/ husband. The track is absolutely incredible musically, lyrically and emotionally, and is probably the best single song of 2006. Even the familiar sounding tracks, such as opener “The Crane Wife 3” and the amazing “Summersong” soar on this effort. “O Valenica” has a tough act to follow after “Yankee Bayonet”, but provides familiar lyrics in regard to tragic love.

The slowly building “The Crane Wife 1 and 2” works as another epic, layered with more electronic keyboards before moving into its softer, beautiful and apologetic second part. The anthemic, optimistic “Sons and Daughters” is perfectly placed as the closer, sounding off with Meloy singing the inexplicably warm lyrics, “We’ll build our homes of aluminum/ We’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon/ Here all the bombs fade away.”

I still have no idea what a Crane Wife actually is, but I have a feeling we all need to have one.

The Hold Steady/ Boys and Girls in America, 8.3/10

For one, I grew tired of The Hold Steady’s debut album Seperation Sunday (7.9. 2005) upon repeated listens. Sure, it was great party music with fun guitar riffs and leadman Craig Finn drunk-talking well-crafted party lyrics. That album, as fun as it was, lacked lyrical depth and feeling and grew redundant as it progressed. A drunk guy talking over great guitar riffs is fun enough, but after three or four songs I required a bit more. On their sophomore effort Boys and Girls in America, references to drinking, getting high, and getting laid are still present with often hilarious frequency, but are strengthened with a bittersweet reminiscence that adds depth to the lyrics.

Opener “Stuck Between Stations” opens with a classic American rock-n-roll sound complete with pounding drums, electric guitar riffs, piano, and, of course, that talking voice. This track is one of the album’s strongest and immediately captures attention, as intensity builds into the chorus. The next three tracks progress with a similar rocky feel, highlighted by the rocky “Hot Soft Light”, a subtler but no less hard-core American rock song.

In “Chips Ahoy”, Finn sings of a week of partying following a winning day at the racetracks. “Party Pit” tells the story of a drunken romp at a familiar gathering, where Finn recalls, “Well I’m pretty sure we kissed…Can I walk around and drink some more?” And the triumphant standout “Massive Nights” recalls previous evenings of good ole debauchery.

I know what you’re thinking. Anybody can come up with a great guitar riff and mumble unintelligable lyrics about how much they love to party. I would agree with you, except that this album eventually amounts to much more. Finn begins to attempt vocals this time around on prettier, painful tracks such as “Citrus, ” where Finn sings, “Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/ I’ve had kisses that made Judus seem sincere.” Bittersweet love ballad “First Night” enters new musical territory for the band, as Finn reminisces on a first meeting with a long lost love. Probably the best song on the album, “First Night” evokes goosebumps. Wait a second, isn’t this The Hold Steady? Finn demonstates some vocal range on this one while remembering the girl that “Slept like she’d never been scared.” And album closer “Southtown Girls” finishes in the same manner that Boys and Girls in America opens, with classic American-roots rock and catchy guitar riffs.

Overall, this is not an album that I would argue will change the world of music with its innovation, but I doubt that The Hold Steady would have it any other way. As somewhat of a sentimental person, I connected with this album, recalling all of the great times I had back in those summers where there was nothing to worry about and nothing to do other than the things Finn sings about on these tracks. The songs are fun, yes, but there is an underlying sadness that the times of these tales have long passed and are now gone forever, only existing in a memory. A great escape for worthy recollections to be sure, and a decidedly impressive step up musically, lyrically and conceptually from their still very listenable debut.

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