Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2006: Number 11

Lovely etching, but it's no Chris Funk dressed as a tree

Colin Meloy needs to learn to disguise his curveballs better. His Morrissey covers EP was followed by an album that injected some of the Smiths' observational skills by the underdog into the Decemberists' set parameters of ultrasmart widescreen historically charged indiepop. Touring solo at the start of the year, the accompanying merch table CD was a set of Shirley Collins' trad. arr. arrangements. Sure enough, The Crane Wife takes as its starting point the structures and craft of the English folk revivalists and then plays with them as Meloy and his ever-tightening band see fit. With two songs requiring double figures in the minute LED display it's probably not the album new US paymasters Capitol were hoping to sell them to the OC generation with, but for this most literate of bands it's another step forward down a most singular path. There's still a cast list of rogues, soldiers and remorseless lovers, a litany of complex references ("Sycorax and patagon in parallax", sir!) but never does it overwhelm or lose the prepared listener.

See, while The Island, weighing in at 12:42, is proper indie-prog, a three parter that mixes churning Paisley Underground alternative, Led Zeppelin folk, sea shanty, Peter Gabriel Genesis, King Crimson keyboards and in the third section intimate John Martyn fingerpicking, it's a suite that never gets lost in its own cleverness, showing what they can do, setting up enormous melodic shifts and harmonics without ever letting go of the emotional hook. If anything, it's actually a less orchestrated, more natural sounding album than we've become used to, a general air of determination and breezy vigour that's perhaps a more flattened out version of Picaresque's mini-grandiosity but garnished with the usual attention to instrumental detail. And there's still historical settings for Meloy to feed off, doing what he does best in locating the deeply personal in the sociopolitical, from Civil War-set missing love Laura Veirs duet Yankee Bayonet to the creepy Shankill Butchers making unpoliticised Grimm fairytale capital from actual UVF loyalist murderers. Establishing a tone while playing with its borders, it might take a few listens but when it clicks it clicks in spectacular fashion. If major investment means increased production values available for the band to continue their odysseys and explorations, so much the better on this evidence.

LISTEN ON: O Valencia
WATCH ON: Shankhill Butchers solo live somewhere; a recording diary provided by US paymasters Capitol
READ ON: Pitchfork's traditionally forensically detailed examination of Meloy's being

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