The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

Another dip back into the past, this time from April 2007!

I only started listening to the Decemberists a couple of months ago. I started with their first record, Castaways and Cutouts, I’ve started kinda working my way forward.

‘Cept I kinda skipped ahead a bit and picked up their latest record, The Crane Wife, last week.

Sometime between that first record and the latest one, the Decemberists discovered a couple of things: 1) an electric guitar, and 2) the work of Styx circa “Lady.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Their 1870s meets 1970s aesthetic actually works for the most part on this record. Thematically, it’s a loose song cycle based on a Japanese folk tale involving a man who takes a crane woman as his wife. The album includes two lengthy multipart songs: “The Crane Wife,” which is broken up into “Part 3” (which opens the album) and “Part 1 & 2” (which comes near the end of the record), and “The Island,” a track that sounds something like a prog rock epic about immigration, class struggle, dueling, and drowning. “The Island” features a section that nicks the warblely synth line from “Band on the Run,” with the twist that it’s performed by a string quartet. Part of “Come and See,” the first section of “The Island,” sound like something out of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer or post-Tommy Shaw Styx.

But lest you think it’s all epic-length story songs, fear not: the Decemberists can knock together a folky, poppy song in the 3-4 minute range with ease and poise. “Yankee Bayonet” is an effortless, sprightly tune about…well, a Civil War soldier and his lady love. “The Perfect Crime No. 2” races along breathlessly. “Shankill Butchers” is a creepy, old-fashioned “keep the kids in line” lullaby with a slow, stuttered rhythm. “Sons and Daughters” closes the record with a sweet, folky surge and a note of hope.

The album really holds together well as a whole, though “The Island” does drag after awhile and “The Crane Wife” could’ve been condensed to one part rather than three. But really, it’s a solid collection. The songs are strong and evidence a growth and a great sense of songcraft. It’s not for everyone–not everyone is gonna groove on subject matter mostly drawn from the 19th century–but for those that can dig into it, it’s a very rewarding listen.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

I am, as anyone who has spent ten minutes talking with me knows, a bit obsessed with music (also, comic books, but that’s a totally different post). I try to keep up with new stuff, but there’s always just so much coming out, and all the old stuff I’m discovering that I hadn’t heard before, and all the other stuff I had heard before but really liked and wanted to hear again and again…it’s tough to keep up. That being said, there were a couple of albums I just did not get to this year that I really wanted to listen to. Stuff like They Might Be Giants’ Join Us, Calexico’s Selections from Road Atlas (1998-2011), or Deer Tick’s Divine Providence. I’ll get to them eventually, especially now that we’re in that dead time of new music releases that is the post-holiday time, but in the meantime, here’s the stuff I really liked this year.

Honorable Mentions (things I listened to and rather enjoyed, if not enough to really gush about):

William Elliott Whitmore, Field Songs: A pretty solid album, though not as engaging as Ashes to Dust (still my favorite of his).

Cake, Showroom of Compassion: It’s kinda nice to see these guys, fifteen years later, still doing their thing their own way. Sure, John McCrea might actually almost sing once in awhile now, and there’s occasionally no irony in his delivery, but it’s pretty much the same as it ever was, and what it was wasn’t broken.

Tom Waits, Bad As Me: A new Tom Waits album is always welcome, and this one hit some pretty sweet spots, but it just didn’t have the oomph that I wanted it to have. There really wasn’t a standout track for me, which is probably why it didn’t make my top ten.

The Submarines, Love Notes/Letter Bombs: These songs feel like they were custom-made for iPod commercials. Take from that what you will.

Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive: A solid outing from Earle, the only tragedy being that the standard version of this album does not include his cover of the title track, a wonderful rendition of the old Hank Williams tune.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs: I think somewhere along the way, Radiohead and I headed off in different musical directions. I’m not sure which of us went wrong, but I’m not sure I really want to follow where they’re going anymore. Didn’t they used to play guitars and stuff?

R.E.M., Collapse Into Now: The final album from these guys isn’t too shabby, but it’s not really anything spectacular. Not a whimper, not a bang, but somewhere in-between.

The Top Ten (the albums I couldn’t stop listening to):

10. Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre, Volume 2: Picking up where last year’s The Grand Theatre, Volume 1, left off, this finds the band in fine form, cranking out poppier songs than were found on the first disc. You can hear them having fun with their music, which is always appreciated.

9. The Black Keys, El Camino: This picks up right were Brothers left off, sonically. They’re mixing in more old-school soul and whatnot with their standard minimalist blues, and it really adds some depth to the sound. It’s highs aren’t as high as on Brothers, but it’s a leaner record without a lot of the filler that weighed down the middle part of the earlier record.

8. Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots: I mentioned the song “Everybody Needs Love” from this album in my iPod list yesterday, but honestly the rest of the album is pretty damn solid, too. These guys (and gal) are great storytellers in the Johhny Cash/Merle Haggard tradition, crafting sagas of hard liquor, harder luck, and infidelity that has all of the disturbing allure and attraction of a massive accident on the side of the highway.

7. Jonathan Coulton, Artificial Heart: I hadn’t really heard of this guy, then discovered he was responsible for the hilarious and whimsical song at the end of the game Portal. I decided to check this album out, and feel I’ve been deeply rewarded for doing so. His songwriting is top-notch, and this album would be worth it for “The Stache” alone, his paean to fuzzy upper lips.

6. Okkervil River, I Am Very Far: These guys become more awesome with each album. I still find it entertaining that “White Shadow Waltz” is not, as one would expect, in 3/4 time. Also, drums are used almost as punctuation in these songs, sharp cracks that accent the rest of the music and the convoluted lyrics perfectly.

5. Wilco, The Whole Love: This sounds like the album Wilco has been trying to make since A Ghost is Born. There’s a little something for everyone here: “Born Alone” could have fit in alongside anything on Summerteeth or Ghost, oddly enough, while “Dawned On Me” sounds like a Ghost outtake. “The Whole Love” itself is a distillation of everything the band is right now, a mission statement along the lines of “Wilco (The Song),” only even better.

4. 8in8, NightyNight: It was an ambitious if slightly ridiculous premise: get four like-minded souls in a recording studio for 8 hours to write and record 8 brand-new songs on the fly. The final product may have fallen short of that goal (only six songs in something like 10 hours, when it was all said and done), but the music they created was fun, whimsical, and more than a little emotionally engaging. Besides, it features Neil Gaiman singing a song about Joan of Arc wandering around a park in London in the modern day, and what’s not to love about that?

3. Beirut, The Rip Tide: The is the most streamlined album Beirut’s done, and it still features so much accordion and brass that it’s not even funny. It is, however, fantastic: I remain in constant awe about how this band creates such depth in the music. It’s almost operatic in places, but not pretentious or overwrought. It’s a nifty trick to pull off, and The Rip Tide walks the tightrope perfectly.

2. Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain in the Cloud: Oddly enough, I found out about these guys while sitting in a community college cafeteria over the summer. Regardless of how I discovered them, they sound like what would happen if the Flaming Lips started an Oasis cover band, and there’s nothing about that sentence that isn’t brilliant.

1. The Decemberists, The King is Dead: This may be the least-unified album thematically by the band in many years, but it makes up for that by being the most consistently great album they’ve done in years. There is a unifying concept to the record, though not in the same way there was for The Hazards of Love or The Crane Wife. For The King is Dead, they’ve stuck to a particular style for most of the record: a loose, country-ish, folky rock sound that creates a cohesion despite the lack of an overall theme. Many of the songs do share a longing for pastoral simplicity and a desire to be surrounded by good friends and family. The album came out back in January, but I’ve listened to it so many times already it feels like I’ve had it for years. I had to remind myself it actually came out this year.

So, that’s the list. Agree? Disagree (in which case, you’re wrong)? Let me know your thoughts and your favorites from this year!

Top 25 Most-Played Songs for 2011

Every year, I reset the playcount on all the songs on my iPod. But before I do that, I count down what the top 25 most-played songs on the iPod were for the year.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for that once again. Here they are, in descending order:

25. Elliott Smith, “Baby Britain,” from XO (13 plays): I love me some Elliott Smith, as does my wife. He’s one of the few artists we completely agree on, and makes a great compromise when we’re in the car and want something to listen to. The man had a way with words and a deftness and nimbleness in his guitar playing that I absolutely loved.

24. Amanda Palmer, “Oasis,” from Who Killed Amanda Palmer (13 plays): This is quite possibly the best song about date rape and a trip to the abortion clinic you’ll ever hear, though that’s probably a pretty short list of songs to begin with, I’d imagine. Palmer offsets the seriousness of the situation with one of the brightest, poppiest melodies you could imagine (with Ben Folds on backing vocals, no less!), and the bouncy rhythm really makes you think there is something seriously wrong with Amanda Palmer in the best possible way.

23. Moxy Fruvous, “The Present Tense Tureen,” from Wood (15 plays): There was a time in college – probably about six to nine months – when I listened to nothing but this Canadian band, and it may have broken me. I mean, how many songs do you know about a guy walking along a creek, encountering an elf, and getting relationship advice while waiting for a stew to boil that isn’t actually in the tureen? Just this one, I assure you. Plus, it features the line, “Then he giggled in French/That’s what he did,” and that is possibly the best line in anything ever.

22. Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones,” from August and Everything After (15 plays): Several of the songs that pop up on this list (including this one) are songs on the playlist I designed specifically for my wife, because the alternative was she would always have to listen to Bob Dylan (or we’d be divorced; I imagine it’s a one thing or the other sort of situation) in the car. Anyway, we both enjoy this song, and it features a Bob Dylan reference, so I’m happy.

21. The Arcade Fire, “Intervention,” from Neon Bible (15 plays): Another song off the playlist for the wife. She identifies it as her favorite Arcade Fire song, while I love the prominent use of church organ.

20. Harlem Shakes, “Sunlight,” From Technicolor Health (17 plays): This band’s place in my music collection seemed like a bit of an anomaly, though I’ve never been able to really articulate why. They don’t really sound much like any other band I listen to much, and I don’t really care for any other bands that play their particular style of indie-guitar rock, and yet…I really love this album, and this song in particular. Dunno why.

19. The Gaslight Anthem, “Stay Lucky,” from American Slang (18 plays): Okay, these guys, I know exactly why I like. Anyone doing straight-ahead Bruce Springsteen-inspired rock is okay in my book, and these guys have finally grown beyond just aping their influences (the aforementioned Bruce Springsteen). This is a great song for driving to, though I do have to pay attention not to drive too fast when it’s on. Also, way too much fun to sing along with at the top of your lungs.

18. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” from Pendulum (19 plays): Let’s speak plainly: Pendulum is not a good CCR album. Hell, it’s not a particularly good album, full stop. It’s bland and does not have a clear identity, something CCR albums usually never suffer from (Mardis Gras is pretty mediocre, too). However! However, it does feature this particular song, which is a slice of redemption so powerful, so beautiful, so perfect, that I am willing to forgive the existence of the album based solely on the presence of this single song. Also, “Hey Tonight” is pretty good.

17. The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, “The Golden Age,” from The Golden Age – EP (19 plays): Yeah, it’s that song from the Hieneken commercial. I am highly susceptible to the music used in advertisement, if not the product (I don’t really care for Hieneken, for instance). Plus, it’s fun.

16. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Kings Road,” from Hard Promises (20 plays): Tom Petty has been one of my favorite musicians since I was a young, young man (one of the first concerts I ever went to, in fact, was a Tom Petty concert). He’s one of the best songwriters in rock and roll, and Mike Campbell is one of the most criminally overlooked and underappreciated lead guitarists in music. Campbell’s guitar parts always fit the song perfectly, and he doesn’t solo to show off his skills, he solos to meet the needs of the song. I think it’s safe to say I’ll buy any album these guys put out.

15. Cream, “Badge,” From Goodbye (20 plays): Between this and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” I think it’s safe to say that the Eric Clapton/George Harrison songwriting partnership is one that should have been much more fruitful. These guys did some of their best work together, but never really got around to doing many songs with each other. I call it a tragedy.

14. 8in8, “One Tiny Thing,” from NightyNight (21 plays): Take three musicians and one Neil Gaiman, sit them in a recording studio for a night, and see what they come up with. It’s a beautifully simple concept, and one that created several of my favorite songs this year. This particular tune, “One Tiny Thing,” is an excellent example of what they accomplished: simple, direct, but perfectly captured, a little slice of four friends working together to create music that is both fun and emotionally engaging.

13. The National, “Think You Can Wait,” from the Film “Win Win” (21 plays): I will listen to pretty much anything the National puts out. Seriously, it could just be Matt Berninger reading the phone book over Bryan Devendorf’s drums, and I would listen to it and declare it wonderful.

12. The Avett Brothers, “Will You Return?,” from Emotionalism (21 plays): Harmonies and banjos? Yes, please.

11. The Pixies, “Here Comes Your Man,” from Doolittle (23 plays): I never really listened to contemporary music when I was in high school, so I completely missed out on bands like the Pixies in the ’90s. My wife, on the other hand, was a bit of a Pixies devotee, so I’ve since been indoctrinated into their holy communion. This is probably my favorite song of theirs; I just love the harmonies in the chorus.

10. Josh Ritter, “Golden Age of Radio,” from Golden Age of Radio (23 plays): I think the record will show I love me some Josh Ritter (even if his last record was a little bland). This song is just fantastic: thumping percussion, a great chord progression, and a spirited vocal delivery from Ritter. Plus, it name drops Patsy Cline and Townes Van Zandt.

9. Florence + the Machine, “Dog Days are Over,” from Lungs (23 plays): I really only play the guitar, but I am apparently a sucker for a stripped-down, bone-rattling drum beat. This song has that, plus Florence Welch just sings with such gusto. That woman can belt it and has no fear, which I appreciate in a vocalist (possibly why I like Dylan so much).

8. Stephen Stills, “Wooden Ships,” from Just Roll Tape (24 plays): More a demo than anything else, this rough draft version of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young AOR staple is stripped down and simple, just Stills and a guitar. But stripped of harmonies and bombast, it’s still a great song. The core of the tune – the chord progression, the melody – is strong enough to make this just as great as the version everyone knows.

7. Dan Auerbach, “My Last Mistake,” from Keep it Hid (24 plays): While it may just be a simple song about screwing up a relationship, there’s something universal about the concept that musicians keep coming back to for a reason. And hell, this is just a great tune. The chord progression is catchy, the bluesy lead is pitch-perfect, and Auerbach’s vocals really deliver the emotional punch the song needs. It’s a simple song, but it’s a simple pleasure that really satisfies.

6. The Beatles, “Chains,” From Please Please Me (25 plays): Is this the best Beatles song? No, not by a long shot. Is it even the best song on this album? Heck no (I mean, there’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” For crying out loud). However, it’s a perfect distillation of what’s great about early Beatles: a great beat, excellent melody, and some of the best upper-register vocals you’ll ever hear. Plus, it’s got George on the lead vocals, and he didn’t ever get the love he deserved in that group, man.

5. Colin Hay, “Beautiful Word,” from Scrubs (Original Television Soundtrack) (27 plays): This song was used to great effect in the TV show Scrubs, but even standing on it’s own, it’s beautiful. The melody is gorgeous, and the simplicity of Hay’s delivery (and the stripped-down arrangement of just his voice and acoustic guitar) makes it all the more affecting. It’s one of those sad, sweet tunes I could just listen to over and over, and obviously did this year.

4. Drive-By Truckers, “Everybody Needs Love,” from Go-Go Boots (29 plays): Again, a pretty universal theme (people want to be loved) that’s been tackled hundreds, even thousands, of times in popular music, but this is just the sort of anthematic song you can’t help but sing along to at the top of your lungs when it comes on.

3. The Decemberists, “Don’t Carry it All,” from The King is Dead (29 plays): I have a pretty solid music crush on the Decemberists. I will listen to any album they put out, though I’ve always been a little disappointed they went the prog-rock concept album route instead of focusing on smaller, single-song stories. Well, The King is Dead was something of an answer to my prayers, and “Don’t Carry it All” was the hallelujah. It’s the loosest and most joyful I’ve ever heard them be, and it’s just fun to listen to (I know, not a word I’d really associate with the band, either). Honestly, The King is Dead is a strong contender for my favorite album this year, and it’s mostly on the strength of this one song.

2. The Hollies, “Just One Look,” from The Air That I Breathe: The Very Best of the Hollies (33 plays): A great little unrequited love song full of harmonies and a great bridge. If you can listen to this song and not want to sing along, I think you might actually be dead inside.

1. Deer Tick, “Easy,” from Born on Flag Day (35 plays): This song has consumed me in the past few months. Everything about it is amazing, from the feedback that opens the track to the use of the vibra-slap, the deep throb of the bass line under those riffs in the intro, to the Telecaster twang of the guitar and the growl in the singer’s voice. This is a song full of despair, gloom, doom, and a sense of overwhelming frustration and anger. It’s brilliant: in under 4 minutes, Deer Tick deliver one of the most affecting songs I’ve heard in a long time. As soon as the song is over, I want to hit the back button and hear it again. And the harmony in the second verse? Gets me every time. It’s perfect, and it’s the song I’ve listened to the most times this year.

Albums of the Year

Every year, I find my favorite albums and make a list of ’em, like roughly 99.9999% of the blogosphere. I’ll forgo the whole Best of the Decade thing that so many are doing, because honestly I have a difficult time remembering everything that came out that I liked this year, let alone ten years ago (besides, I was a mere slip of a thing ten years ago; what the hell did 19-20 year old me know?). You’ll notice that I tend to favor enjoyable music to challenging music (which isn’t to say challenging music can’t be fun, but you won’t see much noise or art rock on my list, and I really can’t abide by Animal Collective). Also, The Beatles box set was not eligible on account of it being totally unfair and there only being ten spots on the list, not 14 (13 albums plus Past Masters). Anyway, in a rather particular order, here’s my top ten albums of 2009…

10. Wilco, Wilco (the album): The winking smirk of the album title and the opening track (“Wilco (the Song)”) are a great indicator that this is a band that’s having some fun. With great tunes such as “Sunny Feeling” (my favorite on the album; just listen to that slide guitar) and the lovely “You and I,” it’s clear that Wilco has found their comfort zone and could churn out warm, lovely songs for the next ten or fifteen years easily without changing a thing. And I’d buy every single album they released.

9. Works Progress Administration, Works Progress Administration: I’ve always had a soft spot for anything related to Glen Phillips (he of Toad the Wet Sprocket), and throwing a few members of the progressive bluegrass mainstays Nickel Creek into the mix always works out well. This is a mellow, folky record that’s just fun to listen to; you can tell the musicians had a blast recording these songs, and shouldn’t music be fun?

8. Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk: I also have a soft spot for the Supergroup (the Traveling Wilburys will always be my favorite, of course). While this folkie indie supergroup isn’t the second coming of the Wilburys or anything, it’s still a lot of fun. It may not be a challenging listen, but it’s definitely a fun one.

7. Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next: It’s only an EP, but it was a damn good one. There’s not a bad song on here, and the opener, “Satellite Skin,” is one of my favorite songs of the year. They’re not doing anything all that different than what they’ve done on their past couple of full-length albums, but they’re doing it really well, so I won’t complain.

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: Case sounds like she’s finally recording the sort of songs she wants to, a nice balance of country, indie pop, and traditional roots rock that fits right alongside what’s come before but is also a step away from her earlier sound. “This Tornado Loves You” is like a theme song for my home state of Oklahoma, I swear; who else would have the chutzpah to personify a tornado?

5. Iron & Wine, Around the Well: An odds-and-sods collection shouldn’t be this good, but Around the Well is. Looking at the leftovers and castoffs usually strikes me as a good time, and this collection is pretty rewarding in that respect. Plus, really awesome covers of the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” and the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Awesome.

4. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic: Noisier and messier than anything they’ve recorded in the past fifteen or maybe even twenty years, Embryonic sounds a lot like the record the Lips have been wanting to record their whole career. Warm and cathartic and amazing when played live, the songs from this album are great, and the loose thematic organization helps them hang together really well.

3. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca: Remember how I said I prefer fun to challenging? I also said that you could have both at once, and this album fits that. These guys and gals are clearing having a blast on this record, and making some music that is both thought-provoking and fun to just sit back and listen to.

2. Bob Dylan, Together Through Life: Dylan continues his late-career renaissance with an album that incorporates a whole lot of accordion and a heaping helping of his rusty, 40-of-whiskey-and-two-packs-a-day voice. This is also funny Dylan, as he cracks jokes, snarks a lot, and generally sounds like he has a smirk on his face the whole time. Favorite line: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce/Some people tell me I’ve got the Blood of the Lamb in my voice.” Classic.

1. A.C. Newman, Get Guilty: Usually, in a year that features not one but two Dylan albums (Christmas in the Heart being the second, which almost made the list for sheer bizarro-ness), the top spot would be Dylan. But that is not the case this year, and not because Dylan wasn’t deserving (hey, #2 ain’t bad). No, the simple fact is that A.C. Newman’s Get Guilty was the best album I’ve heard all year. I came out back in the beginning of the year (January, I think), and I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly since then. And there’s not a bad song on the record: everything from “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” to “Prophets” is a perfect slice of bouncy, energetic power-pop that you can’t help but shout along with. Newman has a McCartney-esque way with hooks and melodies, making them sound effortless and obvious, but he’s also got some great lyrics to go along with the tunes. Definitely my favorite album of the year, and probably one of my favorites of this decade.

Honorable Mentions: M. Ward’s Hold Time, Dark Was the Night (a great compilation featuring a who’s who of indie guitar rock), Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart (bizarre and awesome), The Minus 5’s Killingsworth (getting back to the 5’s earlier, more countryish sound), The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, The Dead Weather’s Horehound, Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, and Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs.