It's a brave new world for Decemberists fans. The release of their new album, The Crane Wife, marks the group's shift to Capitol Records from indie Kill Rock Stars. Violinist and co-singer Petra Haden has left the group, and singer/songwriter Colin Meloy now finds inspiration from an ancient Japanese folk-tale. But if you're worried that The Crane Wife spells the end of the Decemberists as you know it, well, don't be.
The group's trademark menagerie of rollicking folk epics and somber organ-driven ballads has not been compromised by their new corporate ownership. Solo-artist Laura Veirs's appearance on "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," a typical Haden duet, proves her a worthy sparring partner for Meloy. And Meloy has packed his lyrical rucksack with all the usual Decemberists suspects: swashbucklers, thieves, soldiers' ghosts and lovers lost at sea.
The Crane Wife does, however, show signs of newfound maturity. Opener "The Crane Wife Pt. 3" pairs a melancholy acoustic chord progression with a steady battlefield drumline and hectic violin. The sensory tug-of-war is fit for the song's tale of temptation and loss, spinning a dramatic tale familiar to the Decemberists canon without the usual histrionics. The group has learned to clench their musical fists without simply squeezing their accordians louder and faster. Lyrically, Meloy has curbed his grandiloquence as well, with a stronger emphasis on the poetic than the theatrical. On "The Crane Wife, Pts. 1 & 2," the 11-minute companion to the opener, he sings "Sound the keening bell/And see it's painted red/Soft as fontanelle/The feathers in the tread." And the group's long-overdue sound variation - namely the 12-minute Floydian prog-rock opera "The Island: Come and See/ The Landlord's Daughter /You'll Not Feel The Drowning" - leads them to promising new terrority.
But despite trying several new shoes that fit nicely, The Crane Wife is marred by exhausted patches. "When The War Came" and "Shankill Butchers," which dissolve into flat chorus chanting, give the impression that Meloy doesn't have the wind to fill all of the balloons in his parade. With two tracks over 11 minutes, maybe he's just blowing them too big.