“Stand up and DANCE!” an audience member yells during a Decemberists concert. Drummer John Moen jokingly plays a bar or two of a techno beat, the crowd laughs, and lead singer, guitarist, and creative braintrust of the band Colin Meloy replies: “well, folks are welcome to do that, at any moment, what [guitarist] Chris Funk affectionately calls the Footloose moment of the show….” More laughs. Meloy’s got a great bantering rapport with his audience and his band members onstage, but there’s something deeper behind this moment, captured in crystal clear sound on The Decemberists first live release.
Meloy’s onstage banter raises the question of how to categorize The Decemberists’ bizarre, fanciful, and often epic song themes, little fantasy dramas played out in an alt-country, folk-rock idiom. Is it theater? Performance art? Geeky Renaissance faire balladeering? Or is it (does it) rock? For more than 10 years, The Decemberists have challenged their audience to consider this question, writing bonafide rock tunes like the bombastic rhythmic juggernaut “The Infanta” that opens this live album, alongside deliberately peculiar oddities like “The Bagman’s Gambit”, a ballad about a Cold War-era forbidden love between spies.
“Well, now that we got you all standing, we’re going to regale you with a song about a joint suicide”. Meloy implies that, based on lyrical content alone, we wouldn’t want to dance to “We Both Go Down Together”. But the song has a driving rock beat, an aggressive vocal melody, and a downright nasty violin and organ riff. In 1979, Mikal Gilmore said that the Talking Heads wrote “psychodramas you can dance to.” Well, these are melodramas you can dance to.
We All Raise Our Voices to the Air is full of raw energy, a palpable, kinetic excitement in Meloy’s acoustic strumming, Moen’s thundering drums, and especially the impressive low end of bassist Nate Query, who’s much more front and center in the live mix than in the studio. That core sound urges the music forward on “The Rake’s Song”, “Calamity Song”, “O Valencia!”, and “This Is Why We Fight”. It all combines with Meloy’s trill-like vocal vibrato, the dramatic and eerie accompaniment to these stories of forlorn lovers, soldiers on the battlefield, and vengeful sailors.
The 20 songs on this album are drawn from 12 different shows in mid-2011, fresh on the release of their least theatrical and most accessible studio effort, The King is Dead. That record is well-represented here, with seven tracks including the Grammy-nominated “Down by the Water”, the Irish-flavored “Rox in the Box”, and the tender, harmonica-tinged ballad “June Hymn”.
The King is Dead features few character-based narratives, a departure for a band whose previous album was a full-fledged, partially-staged rock opera, and so the band balances their live show with plenty of mini-dramas drawn from their first five studio albums; there are songs about deformed children (“Leslie Anne Levine”), schoolboy ennui (“Billy Liar”), trench warfare (“The Soldiering Life”), and a vendetta staged in the belly of a giant whale (“The Mariner’s Revenge Song”). Included are a few of the Decemberists’ indie rock radio hits, such as “The Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!”, yet they leave off perhaps their most widely-recognized tune, “16 Military Wives”.
What’s really missing on this album is the theatricality that accompanies these songs onstage, an element that can only be presumed from listening. Just YouTube a performance of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” to see how much Meloy and the rest of the band turn what is already a fun and arresting musical performance into a full-on circus show, the perfect set closer. Absent, too, is how “The Rake’s Song” features at least four band members hammering away on their own mini drum kits. A DVD release will certainly solve these issues, but they go undocumented in aural form.
That’s a small downside to the incredible things that do come with this first live album, such as hearing the phenomenal, epic “The Crane Wife” suite in its restored, original order. For 2006’s The Crane Wife, the band severed the radio-friendly third section of the title track and used it to begin the album. But live, the saga unfolds with a dramatic symphonic scope, beginning with the persistent rhythms of the first section that gradually accumulate as each instrument joins the fray, capitulating in swirling organ, bells, and electric guitar riffs. The second part slows down, as Meloy and Funk sing hymn-like vocal harmonies over sparse piano and guitar. Then finally, the third section is the astounding apotheosis of the entire thing, now recontextualized as the powerful closing movement of a grandiose musical idea. You’ll need a cigarette afterwards.
Essential Tracks: “The Infanta”, “Calamity Song”, “The Rake’s Song”, “The Crane Wife 1, 2, and 3”, “This Is Why We Fight”, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”