The Decemberists - We All Raise our Voices to the Air

Now in its 12th year as an ensemble, The Decemberists owe a large part of their success to mindfully foregoing rock norms and fusing folk music into a progressive frame compelling the listener to first wonder what the hell is happening to a sound they thought they knew well, next curious as to the emerging quasi-classicalist airs, lastly sitting entranced, no longer giving a damn what the answers might be, only that the experiment should continue lest the sun fall from its orbit and things go somewhat awry. We saw this with the Strawbs, String Driven Thing, the Pogues, Immaculate Fools, Horslips - even there's even a bit of Stackridge in cuts like "Billy Liar" - and a number of equally intriguing past outfits, all too few, I regret to note, but always welcome to beguile ears and fancies.

There's also a bit of unusual eclectic celebrity to this unit. In 2006, The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert started a mock feud with the band, an exchange that soon predictably, given Colbert's rather anarchically satirical ways, got out of hand, much to the delight of not only the audience but also N.Y governor Eliot Spitzer and, sweet Jesus!, war criminal Henry Kissinger, as well as Peter Frampton. Even Mad TV would've had a hard time one-up'ing something like that, let alone imagining it. Then came 2008 and the band's performance in support of candidate Barack Obama, so The Decemberists are neither shy nor apolitical. Thank God, then, that they're not conservative a-holes like Ted Nugent and Charlie Daniels (who, I rush to note, nonetheless issue great music), in "The Soldiering Life" and "We Both Go Down Together" taking a solid jab against that benighted mindset and illness.

Though the band doesn't compose as complexly as most prog bands - else they'd soon be well out of the folk mode, instead relying upon more subtle modes oft mirrored well in Colin Meloy's vocals residing 'twixt plaintive recitation and impassioned extollation - neither are they afraid to expand parameters, and several songs in this two-disc bonanza reach over 8, 10, 12, and even 16 minutes, allowing for unabashed feasting on the part of the listener. The 3-part "The Crane Wife", the 16-minute closer to Disc 1, is the set's crown jewel, an exhilarating cut that, more than the others, reveals there's a perceptible though well disguised element of drone music to their repertoire, something that raises the release's infectiousness levels rather handsomely. It's always nice when you can slip audiences an subtle intoxicant.

There's a reason why The Decemberists are one of a small select few who stepped from the indies into label status - in this case Capitol/EMI - and if you manage to find distant ties to Phish and String Cheese Incident, don't be too surprised. They're as willing to jump the worst song they ever wrote ("Dracula's Daughter / O Valencia!") into the repertoire, just for the hell of it, alongside their best. Things aren't always required to be perfect, y'all, and, as zen dharma would have it, it's frequently the flaw that makes beauty all the more apparent.

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