There’s a case to be made for Toronoto’s The Decemberists as one of Canada and North America’s most vibrant current ‘guitar’ bands, whilst contemporaries like the Arcade Fire and the Shins until recently at least, outstripped them commercially. Throughout the 2000s this multi legged multi instrumental collective have continued to produce work of such a quality that it’s impossible to resist, digging back into their love of historical epics, classic literature, and a love of the longing romanticism of Stephen Patrick Morrissey and the 60s work of the Fairport Convention. They blur the lines between fact and fiction bookish front man Colin Meloy painting a whole universe featuring a clutch of females, chimney sweeps, soldiers, pirates at sea, and frankly tragic characters. That these narratives are coloured in with such wonderful tenderness by his wistful melodies and his surrounding cast list of players a core of four main members joined by quality guests, is what elevates The Decemberists above the throng. They have the ability to transport you to somewhere else, so whilst for some hardcore fans their last album “The King Is Dead’ lacked some of the intricate detail of their previous work it was more than made up for with Americana tinged tunes and scored them their first number one album last year. Besides even the most churlish can forgive them any of the taunts of ‘MOR‘ from the scenester set that once cradled them so close. Because when all is said and done it’s the quality of their work, that is all on display on this exhaustive twenty song live double-album and triple-vinyl set ‘We All Raise Our Voices to the Air’, that outstrips any reservations, how many other modern bands challenge you to read into their novel like compositions whilst, raising your spirits aloft and singing your heart out in this in this way?!
These performances come from shows at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Stubb’s BBQ in Austin, Marymoor Amphitheatre in Seattle, their final two shows at McMenamins Edgefield Amphitheatre in Portland, and others. Like attending a gig, the things that make live albums special are those moments that standout those tiny little asides to a crowd, the special moment that is captured forever that isn’t just a band churning workmanlike through it’s back catalogue these are the things that mark out a special show and thus a special recording of a shows. Here they include the undulating sea of ‘ooooo ooohhs’ from the mouths of the audience attendees that hoists the Devonian ‘joint suicide tale’ of the stinging string led stomp ‘We Both Go Down Together’ up further allowing him to deliver his final pay off lines (‘Angel don’t take your life tonight/some people have got no pride/they do not understand the urgency of life/But I love you more than life, together’.Or the slow/fast/slow drama ‘Bagman’s Gambit’ that’s rousing second portion is driven along by trembling instrumentals, to a hushed awe as an isolated Meloy recounts this first person tale of ‘trysts in the greenery’, political intrigue and being on the run. Or the moment at the end of the swoonsome romantic accordion sway of ‘Oceanside’ when a female in the crowd yells ‘FLASHFLOOD!’ Meloy sniggers the retort ‘You don’t want to be shouting that in a packed amputheatre madam!’ There’s humour too as Meloy plays ‘The Dracula’s Daughter’ the self confessed ‘worst song he ever wrote’, before busting into the gorgeousness of ‘O Valencia’ a song that’s juxtaposition of uplifting vitamin D infused pop, with heartbreak and death, would have Belle and Sebastian trembling with delight…It’s mirrored by ‘This Soldiering Life’ that almost queasily mixes uplifting The Sun Has Got It’s Hat on melodies with tales of war time close shaves. While the culmination comes with the final performance of ‘The Marine’s Revenge Song’ that’s kezmar stomp across land and sea, splices Moby Dick with a bloody manhunt set to rambunctious instrumentals and a swift kick beat: while the audience’s accompaniment is sung heartily, with Meloy’s instruction to ‘collectively sing it like your being swallowed by a Whale’ a swift violin solo shines and clambers back into the light!
But here it’s also about the songs and The Decemberists have crafted an impressive cast list of them. From the impending stomp of the ‘Infanta’ through the effortless highlights of tenderly drawn character study of the deceased ‘Leslie Anne Devine’ it’s winding strum and delicious accordion notes of Jenny Conlee are faintly redolent of R.E.M‘s ‘Find The River’(an influence they clearly embrace given Peter Buck appeared on three tracks on their last album) decorated with Meloy’s nasal tone yet utterly compelling poetic attention to detail (‘fifteen years gone now I still wander this peripet/And shake my rattle bones/fifteen years gone I still cling to the petticoat/of the girl who died with me’). To the delightfully almost Crosby Stills & Nash and Young country tinged pop of ‘Down By The Water’ complete with its wonderful harmonica solo, it’s one of several highlights from the thumping double drum patterns of the wide screen rock of ‘The Rake’s Song’ (from the expansive concept album of the same name) that thud across American heartlands, the crescendo line of ‘alright alright ALRIGHT’ replete with Nate Query’s buzzing bassline. While the elongated melodrama of ‘The Crane Wife, Parts one, two and three’ inspired by old Japanese folktale sounds more like a prog-folk-opera, showing off The Decemberists every instrumental texture and melodic arc, led by Meloy’s tales. The curtain closing ‘I Was Meant for the Stage’ see’s the spotlight turns directly upon Meloy for once, rippling as it does with a wistful self affirmation that sees youthful insecurities melt its strum is threaded with wonderful strings and in it’s last portion brass that brings to mind the musicals of Broadway, the delicious irony being that whilst Melody might be considered one of the most unlikely showman around, boy can he put on a performance, orchestrate a crowd, to tell a tale. In fact the highlights are too numerous to recount on this page alone, the only way to breath them into your bosom is to purchase this record this instance!
That the Decemberists can disguard ’16 Miltary Wives’ one of their more well known compositions is testament to the strength of the material on show here. Each one a chapter, each section a player in this world they have created. Despite the fact that they have recently announced a hiatus, The Decemberists rightly hold the mantle as the thinking person’s band in their hands, on this evidence it is safe in their possession for a time to come!