Friday, December 18, 2009

BIBJ Playlist of the 2000s entry #50: The Island by The Decemberists

I often wonder if there's any record of the first band to achieve critical acclaim on an independent label, then later sign with a major label.  I would guess that due to past technological and financial overhead, this mythical band would have to be relatively recent, say in the last 30 years or so.  And I'm guessing as the first wave of the occasion took place, people likely thought that a band getting more money to record in a better studio with a better producer and wider distribution channels was a pretty positive thing.

But the tale has become one of wariness.  You get the feeling now that if a successful band announced their leaping from an indie to major label, they'll hear as many people saying "Watch Out!" as those that give congratulations.  This notion would be one of pop music's great myths, except that all too often the bands themselves turn the folklore into reality.  They end up writing radio-friendly, emotionally vacant singles that they never thought of doing before, or they waste their advance checks, or they over-experiment with all the new toys at their disposal and end up pulling a 180-degree turn from the songwriting that got them the deal in the first place.

Whether actual or simply perceived, the pitfalls remain present.  But it was clear on the first listen to The Crane Wife that The Decemberists had not only avoided every obstacles that have caused many other bands troubles, but they actually played the game perfectly.  Not only would it become their best-selling album to date, but simply their best, period.  And the first listen showcases the duality brilliantly.

"The Crane Wife 3" is a classic table-setting song.  It's clean and bright with an air of mournful wistfulness, but it's also melodically restrained, unwilling to give much away in terms of what's to come on the album's later singles.  But the key to Meloy and co.'s continued success lies in the second song/movement on the record.  12-and-a-half minutes that basically breaks down like this:
  • No vocals for the first 2 minutes and change.  Just a dirty series of riffs and whammy-ing that would turn the ear of any Jethro Tull fanatic.
  • A tonal shift to acoustics for haunting reverbed vocals which seem to indicate that shit just got real.  Meloy keeps shouting "Come and see."  But I get the impression that whoever he's talking to would rather not see any of this madness.  "Thanks, man.  I'm cool over here, secure in my ignorance of whatever the hell Sycorax and Patagon are."
  • Sure, he could end the song there at the 6:30 mark and save what's left for another track, but this band wrote The Tain, so as far as they're concerned, six-minute songs are for housewives and little girls!  The "Landlord's Daughter" segment launches the prog movement into hyper-drive with synths running over keyboards.  The obscure nature-based lyrics of "Come and See" have given way to overtly literal words.  The shit is going to hit the fan and there's no time for symbolism!  We've only got three minutes left on this track, for the love of God!
  • I'm not exactly professor interpretation, but the subtitle "You'll Not Feel the Drowning" would seem to indicate that the story does not have a happy ending. The nylon guitar finger-picking provides a much lighter dichotomy to Meloy's mournful wake singalong.  Did people used to put dimes on the eyes of the dead?  I think that's right.  I'm not positive, but as opposed to researching, I just going to assume that was a custom back in the day.  It sounds like something dumb people would do back in the days before the internet and indoor plumbing.
So there you go, Capitol Records!  Track two of the album!  Spoler alert:  Track 9 is cut from the same cloth.  Enjoy and Happy Christmas!

Obviously, the album still contains it's share of more conventional singles, all of which are great.  But "The Island" was the point where any apprehension about the band's changing methods were answered with what I fondly think of as a 12-and-a-half minute overly-wordy synonym for "Fuck off."  Point taken.  

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