Release Date: Mar 13, 2012
Record label: Capitol
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Can a live set be called "stripped down" when it has a 16-minute folk- rock opus, a yodeling drummer and nautical themed audience participation? In the case of a band as overweeningly theatrical as the Decemberists can be, the answer is... kinda. This is a surprisingly crisp live LP, even at two discs: taut and driving, full of Celtic and country flourishes, held together by richly melodic tunes.
Recorded while the band was on tour for their chart-topping album, The King Is Dead, We All Raise Our Voices to the Air captures the remarkably tight live performances of Portland indie band the Decemberists. Though their last full-length studio album found the band moving toward a simpler, more Americana-influenced sound, the live set finds the band recapturing the intricate and ornate sound of their earlier work, making full use of multi-instrumentalists Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee as the band works is way through this career-spanning set. While roughly a third of the material comes (understandably) from The King Is Dead, the band hits all the high points, belting out classics like "The Bagman's Gambit," "Billy Liar," and all three parts of the "Crane Wife" suite.
The year 2011 was the best and worst of times for the literary folk-country-rock-prog outfit known as the Decemberists. On the plus side of the coin, their sixth album, The King Is Dead, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and became the band’s best-selling album. Their song “Down by the Water” was even nominated for a couple of Grammys.
While it’s probably true to surmise that the critical reaction afforded to The Decemberists' last two studio records has generally been pitched below that of their earlier work (highly unfairly in my opinion, I’d place the glorious, rollercoaster insanity that was 2009’s The Hazards of Love comfortably in my best albums of the past five years list), there has always been a feeling that The Decemberists are a band that are best appreciated live. In a way that can’t quite be replicated through simple speakers, Colin Meloy’s swarthy, charmed and oft-grisly tales spring to life on the stage: a space where the band can fully indulge their theatrical penchant and love of gleeful excess. And while We All Raise Our Voices to the Air – Live Songs can’t quite replicate the pantomime interaction of the live shows (great as ‘The Mariners Revenge Song’ is on here, you really need to see Meloy throwing his arms wide and screaming as the whale devours him to really 'get it' – accompanying DVD maybe?), it’s actually a remarkably feisty live record which manages to capture the carnival of their live show with admirable aplomb As a first achievement, the album it manages to inject a degree of zest into the songs from The King is Dead, jolting them from the somnolence which occasionally bogged their studio equivalents down.
The DecemberistsWe All Raise Our Voices to the Air(Live Songs 4.11-8.11)[Capitol; 2012]By John Ulmer; May 4, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGReviewing a live album is an inherently difficult thing to do, because it goes without saying that anyone seeking out live recordings of a band is likely already a fan. And if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to have an idea of what the group sounds like already, and which songs you like, and so it really comes down to whether the performances live up to one’s expectations. Mind you, it can also be difficult when the reviewer is not a fan of the artist, or is simply familiar with them on nothing more than an average level.
“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.
The Decemberists have always been a hard band to pigeonhole. Their earlier albums celebrated and recalled the great prog-rock bands of the ‘70s, but in the last few years they’ve been clearly enamored with the Appalachian sounds of antique American folk as exemplified by artists like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The Decemberists’ music has always been complex, and it’s easy to imagine how difficult it could be to recreate in a live setting.
For several years now, I've been trying to write off the Decemberists. Back in the early 2000s, during the heyday of McSweeney's and Wes Anderson, the precociously literary folk-pop of Castaways and Cutouts sounded fresh and playful, and in 2006 The Crane Wife suggested they had made the transition from Pac NW indie to a major label with all their charms and pretensions intact. But their ambitions got the better of them on The Hazards of Love, a would-be prog-folk opus that emphasized a heady conceptual framework over strong pop hooks.
With The Decemberists having recently announced plans for a prolonged hiatus – to allow more time for literary ventures, musical side-projects, domestic obligations and medicinal recuperation – it’s somewhat inevitable that this new live compendium will be considered as some form of career showcasing milestone. This is no bad thing considering the lengths and breadths that Colin Meloy and compadres have taken us over the last decade, which is indeed worth some well-considered retrospective reflection. Moreover, for a band with such a formidable live reputation, an on stage document is also a service to fans that have both experienced and missed the band in the flesh.