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The Crane Wife
They may hail from the Pacific Northwest, but they sure sound like they're from the British isles. After four years of creating sparkling indie albums, The Decembrists' major label debut The Crane Wife is a mesmerizing blend of tuneful, but dense acoustic-based chamber pop.
Colin Meloy, the unusually gifted frontman for the quintet, sounds like a cross between Bright Eyes, Morrissey and Richard Thompson, even down to the faux British intonations.
While the album comes suspiciously close to swerving across the median strip into progressive rock clich s (two song suites clocking at more than 11 minutes each; a general thematic concept loosely based on a Japanese folk tale about a crane), Meloy's melodic mastery and his indie ethos keeps matters grounded.
"The Crane Wife 3", one of three songs sharing the same title, leads off the album with rich 12-string acoustic guitars and shimmering folk arrangements anchored by inventive bass lines and topped with lush harmonies courtesy of keyboardist/accordionist Jenny Conlee.
The first song suite encompassing four distinct passages over 11-plus minutes has something for every musical taste - with hints of 70s Supertramp, 80s Waterboys and 90s REM in the melodies and arrangements, and instrumental passages worthy of Jethro Tull or Yes. It may sound horrible on paper, but tape it's magic.
Lyrically, Meloy is a literate period time piece, writing with images full of bayonets, harbors, reeds, and seafaring battles - like Tess of the d'Urbervilles set to music. Just your everyday pop songs.
"Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" returns things to more straightforward, chipper pop complete with a tantalizing wordless male-female vocal hook and evocatively strummed guitar ala The Go Betweens.
And on and on it goes, digging under your skin with each listen, culminating in one final song suite based on the title that starts off muted and slowly builds into an uplifting crescendo. The album's closer, "Sons and Daughters", is a sentimental folksy singalong that can't help but leave you with a warm feeling.
The Crane Wife is early contender for favorite album of the young year, and a potent reminder of why I write this column - to discover music as enchanting as this.
A Weekend in the City
The youngsters of Bloc Party are in good standing as members of the latest generation of Brit popsters, alongside the likes of Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys.
Performing frantic, jittery urban rock - owing nods to post punk bands like Gang of Four and New Order - the quartet gets more ambitious on their second full length album A Weekend in the City.
Just like The Kinks in the 60s and The Jam and The Clash in the 70s created singular portraits of the frustrations of working class England, Bloc Party pick up the challenge with verve and righteous anger.
Aside from the uplifting, anthem-like "Waiting for the 7:18", the first half of the album is a relentless, throbbing assault on life in 21st century England that would make Joe Strummer smile.
But something happens late in the record beginning with the expansive power pop of "Kreuzberg" where the anger subsides, the tunes become more conciliatory, and the band reaches a new peak.
The yearning "I Still Remember" is a classic British rock song that packs an emotional wallop, and "Sunday" is an off kilter love song that also evokes the band's poppier side. And the closing "SRXT" sounds almost like a hymn, with swelling orchestration and vocals set off in counterpoint to a gentle glockenspiel-driven melody.
Whether it's arty, angular pop, angry punk manifestos, or wistful English rock, Bloc Party offers a smorgasbord of accomplished styles and raw emotion that places them as true inheritors of the British rock tradition.