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Rock, Accessible and Arcane: The Decemberists


The Decemberists are a rock group with a strange demeanor. Their lyrics sound like they were written by an expert Scrabble player and their songs are often period pieces that suggest odd folk tales. Their new CD is called The Crane Wife, and our critic, Will Hermes, says it's as remarkable musically as it is verbally.

(Soundbite of The Decemberists)

Mr. COLIN MELOY (The Decemberists): (Singing) When we arrive, sons and daughters, we'll make our homes on the water. We'll build our walls aluminum. We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon.

WILL HERMES: When I hear Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, I imagine a young man with fingerless gloves and a face smudged with grime - a character out of a Dickens novel, perhaps, or from one of Meloy's own songs, like the one about Eli the barrow boy or the randy chimney sweep or on this latest CD, a Civil War soldier.

(Soundbite of The Decemberists)

Mr. MELOY: (Singing) Hark yon tree-trunking Yankee Bayonet, a sweetheart left behind.

Ms. JENNY CONLEE: (Singing) Far from the hills and the sea swells Carolinas, that's where my true love lies.

Mr. MELOY: (Singing) Look for me when the sun bright swallow sings upon the birch bough high.

HERMES: Look for me when the sun bright swallow sings upon the birch bough high? Dude, you must be kidding. I thought that sort of rock posey faded away with Yes and Gentle Giant.

But the Decemberists' love for Old English, the linguistic mode, not the malt liquor, and for complex story songs, has led them to their new CD, The Crane Wife, which is colored by the odd metered, merrily bombastic sound of 1970s British progressive rock.

(Soundbite of The Decemberists)

Mr. MELOY: (Singing) Produce my pistol and then my saber. Then make no whistle, or thou will be murdered.

HERMES: Colin Meloy may be an ex creative writing student from Montana, but his elevated diction and fanciful narratives show a very British sense of drama. And they capture a truth about pop music, which is of course that in art, truth is pedestrian and overrated. Sometimes a tale of a man marrying a crane is more delightful than someone lamenting a girl who won't return their text message.

And sometimes a song that imagines a generation leaving their countries in boats and balloons to live in peace on the borderless sea is more inspiring than a simple protest song. Plenty of artists keep it real, but The Decemberists, masters of the passionately, fantastically archaic, deserve praise for how convincingly they keep it unreal.

(Soundbite of The Decemberists)

Mr. MELOY: (Singing) Hear all the bombs fade away. Hear all the bombs fade away.

NORRIS: The new album from The Decemberists is called The Crane Wife. Our reviewer is Will Hermes.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MELOY: (Singing) Hear all the bombs fade away. Hear all the bombs fade away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.