Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Are the Decemberists a band that “craft theatrical, hyper-literate pop songs that draw heavily from late-’60s British folk acts like Fairport Convention and Pentangle and the early-’80s college rock grandeur of the Waterboys and R.E.M.,” as described by Allmusic, or are their songs an “unbearable exercise in indie high-quirkiness, with each new release deepening the impression that Meloy thinks he’s Edmund Spenser or, at least, the only rock singer smart enough to keep a copy of The Faerie Queene on his bedside plinth,” as writer Jody Rosen wrote in Slate?
Although I lean toward the former, I can understand believing the latter.
There can be no doubt that the Decemberists’ focus on tales of pirates, highwaymen, shape-shifters, and interpretations of myths and legends from around the world, plus primary lyricist Colin Meloy’s empty-the-thesaurus writing style, not to mention their practice of performing live historical reenactments in their shows, set them up for being mocked by some, and beloved by others. And that is what makes life interesting.
The Decemberists were founded in 2000, when Meloy left Montana for Portland, Oregon and hooked up with local bassist Nate Query, keyboard player Jenny Conlee, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk and drummer Ezra Holbrook. After a self-released EP and a few releases on first Hush Records and then Kill Rock Stars, and a change of drummer, to Rachel Blumberg, the band’s popularity steadily increased. In 2005, the band was signed to a major label, Capitol Records. After yet another drummer change, to John Moen, in 2006, the band released what was considered to be their best record to date, The Crane Wife. Even Pitchfork, which usually has little patience for anything that smacks of preciousness, gave it an 8.4 rating, and an overwhelmingly positive review.
It is, from start to finish, an astonishingly ambitious and diverse work, and some of its songs have often been covered. Remarkably, we have found covers of both of the 10-minute-plus tracks on the album, allowing us to present, ambitiously and diversely, for your delectation and amusement, the entirety of The Crane Wife, as put forth by a panoply of sundry interpreters and portrayers, each taking their own liberties with the archetypes.
Marianne Faithfull – The Crane Wife 3 (Decemberists cover)
The Crane Wife is an old Japanese folk tale, Tsuru no Ongaeshi, about a poor man who saves a wounded crane, which flies away. Shortly thereafter, he meets a woman, with whom he falls in love and marries. She promises to weave cloth that can be sold for a high price, but only if the man agrees never to watch her weave. They become wealthy, but of course the man needs to peek, and sees that, of course, his wife is the crane, the cloth is woven from her feathers, and she flies away, leaving him bereft. This story is the titular centerpiece of the album, and is the inspiration for two of its songs. For some reason, the band decided to open the album with “The Crane Wife 3,” the end of the story, but musically it does seem to set the stage for the rest of the work. (And check out the version that the band performed as part of the epic Pawnee-Eagleton Unity Concert on the season 6 finale of Parks and Recreation). Marianne Faithfull, whose rasp couldn’t be more different from Colin Meloy’s high, reedy voice (although her pretty pre-cigarettes and heroin voice that can be heard in her early hits, such as the Jagger/Richards/Oldham tune “As Tears Go By,” is somewhat closer), did a fine version on her guest-filled 2008 cover album Easy Come Easy Go. Featuring a sparer and more open arrangement, highlighted by excellent acoustic bass work from Greg Cohen and background vocals from Nick Cave, Faithfull gets the piece’s fundamental melancholy.
Hubris Project – The Island: Come & See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel The Drowning (Decemberists cover)
The second major piece on The Crane Wife is the three-part suite, “The Island: Come & See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel The Drowning.” A mishmash of influences, including, it appears, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Noyes’ The Highwayman, musically it careens from folk to prog and hard rock, while still holding together, and ends with a devastating drowning. It also includes a couplet that rhymes Sycorax with parallax, and whether you like that is probably a good indication of your feelings about the Decemberists. This ambitious cover is by the Hubris Project, which appears to be the alter-ego of Calvin Morooney, a musician, filmmaker, animator, software developer, and web designer. It is quite faithful to the original, although the vocals lack the distinctiveness of Meloy’s and are buried a bit in the mix.
Barefoot Cavorter – Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then) (Decemberists cover)
The Decemberists have a strange talent for taking dark songs and making them catchy, and “Yankee Bayonet,” a song about lovers separated by the Civil War, lopes along in a peppy way, despite its lyrics about death and longing. The original is a duet between Meloy as a soldier, possibly dead but certainly absent, and guest vocalist Laura Viers as his “sweetheart left behind.” The cover, our almost obligatory “young woman with a ukulele” version, is by Barefoot Cavorter, the name used by Dartmouth senior philosophy major, ice hockey player, and a capella singer Jamie Mercado (with whom I apparently share one Facebook friend). Mercado does a nice job with the song, especially if she has overdubbed herself singing both parts, and it does not suffer from the gender change.
Vitamin String Quartet – O Valencia! (Decemberists cover)
Another fun, upbeat song that ends in tragic death, “O Valencia!” is a variation on the hoary theme of star-crossed lovers. In this case, the couple are members of rival gangs, one of which is killed by a bullet from her own gang, meant for her lover. This song, with its sad story and blood-soaked lyrics, was released by the band as the first single from The Crane Wife (although it never charted), and they also used the song for a contest, recording themselves playing the song in front of a green screen and inviting fans to add their own backgrounds. The winner was video and commercial director Kurt Nishimura, who grafted the footage into an odd video detailing the love affair between a woman and a television. The official video, on the other hand, is more of an homage to Wes Anderson. The cover, by the Vitamin String Quartet, from their album VSQ Performs The Decemberists, successfully uses the inherent mournfulness of bowed stringed instruments to render the sadness of the song, even in the absence of lyrics.
Saturn Returns – The Perfect Crime #2 (Decemberists cover)
The Decemberists’ obsession with criminal behavior is clear — here’s a list of all of the felonies committed in their songs. And the second single from The Crane Wife was this song, which is about the oft-discussed but rarely achieved “perfect crime.” In the same spirit as the way they somewhat perversely started the album with “The Crane Wife 3,” the album proper contains only “The Perfect Crime #2.” Part one, a horn driven raveup, was released as a Starbucks bonus track, segued into the moody “The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back.” The album track sounds a great deal like Fear of Music-era Talking Heads, and its propulsive beat allowed it to hit number 3 on the Billboard Hot Dance Singles chart. Really. The Decemberists. Hot Dance Singles. It also was used in episodes of the TV shows Reaper and The Gilmore Girls and is featured in Rock Band. Saturn Returns, a California-based jam band that features a mix of covers and originals (and one of whose members, Doug Grean, was a long-time collaborator with Scott Weiland until a recent, mysterious creative breakup), stretches the song out during this live performance in 2012, much like the Talking Heads did during their Stop Making Sense-era concerts.
Callipygian – When The War Came (Decemberists cover)
For once, in “When The War Came,” the music matches the message. This song, which is about the horrific 900-day siege of Leningrad by the Nazis during World War II is a dark, Led Zeppelin-ish stomp. According to Meloy, the idea for the song came to him after reading Hunger, a book about the siege, and the story of how the scientists at a botanical institute, facing starvation, protected the institute’s collection of seeds and plants. The cover, by Georgia-based band Callipygian, which Colin Meloy certainly knows means “having well-shaped buttocks,” recorded live in 2013 at the Infusion Festival in Dragon Hills, Georgia, downplays the Zep bombast for a more moody indie-rock sound.
Sarah Jarosz – Shankill Butchers (Decemberists cover)
Another quick change of musical mood, but the level of horror remains high. “Shankill Butchers” is a cautionary folk song warning children to listen to their parents’ warnings about the murderous Shankill Butchers. And the warning is appropriate — the Shankill Butchers were a breakaway faction of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary group, that engaged in brutal sectarian violence during the worst of the Irish “Troubles.” When you choose to name yourself “Butchers,” you probably are going to be pretty violent, and the Shankill lads lived up to their name, torturing and killing at least 23 Catholics, some apparently chosen at random. The psychopathic leader of the Butchers, Lenny Murphy, was killed by the Catholic Provisional IRA, possibly with the complicity of Protestant militia members, who also saw him as a threat. This fairly faithful cover, by 23-year-old Texan string prodigy Sarah Jarosz, showcases her instrumental and vocal prowess, but may be a bit too pretty, considering the song’s underlying menace.
Maya-Rose – Summersong (Decemberists cover)
For most bands, a summer song is a lightweight pop confection about sun, the beach, fun times, and maybe fleeting love. Things are never that simple for the Decemberists, and while their “Summersong” does have a jaunty melody, the lyrics reference dead sailors and watery graves. Is it about a man recounting his being saved during a shipwreck? Is it about a dead lover? A boat? Or is it simply an extended metaphor for sex? Or some combination of all of this, or none of this? Such is the beauty of the Decemberists’ lyrics. Young South African Maya Rose Torrao, who notably finished in 9th place in the DeBeers English Olympiad in 2012 while a high school student, and who (according to her Soundcloud profile) likes knitting and swearing, has a strong, expressive voice. Her cover is well-executed, if lacking in some of the original’s ambiguity.
Matt Daniels – The Crane Wife 1 & 2 (Decemberists cover)
The beginning to the Crane Wife story is the penultimate song on the album, and it is, for the most part, a gentle folk tune that builds occasionally, but ends quietly. Live, the band sometimes performed the entire suite in its entirety, and you can check that out here, and decide for yourself if it is better that way. My take is that it is, but that Part 3 makes a better album opener, if that makes sense. There is something about the music of the Decemberists that seems to draw ukulele covers, and I suspect that with a little digging, I could have done this whole article only featuring that instrument. Surprisingly, though, this ten-and-a-half-minute solo ukulele cover by Matt Daniels is remarkably listenable. Daniels, a Julliard-trained actor, director, and acting coach who specializes in Shakespeare, has a beautiful voice. His version lacks the excessive cuteness that mars many similar versions and is riveting in its simplicity, as befits a man named by M Magazine as one of Milwaukee’s top 13 showstoppers.
Unconscious Collective Vocal Ensemble – Sons and Daughters (Decemberists cover)
The album proper ends with “Sons and Daughters,” which sounds like a coda, and is often used as a show-ending singalong, with the crowd joining the band in singing “Here all the bombs fade away.” Thus, the album closes with an uplifting message of peace and unity, after nearly an hour of murder, death, torture, sadness, cruelty, and other random crimes and misbehavior. The singalong quality of the song has made it a popular choice for a capella groups, and after sifting through a few possibilities, we are going to go with a version from the Unconscious Collective Vocal Ensemble, from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This version is from one of their earliest concerts in 2012. An excerpt from the song was also featured in an episode of The Office, which was a backdoor pilot for a potential spinoff starring Rainn Wilson’s character Dwight Schrute. The woman singing and playing accordion is Nora Kirkpatrick, who was cast as Schrute’s girlfriend, and is a member of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The episode was excruciatingly bad and the pilot was not picked up — this interlude was probably the high point.
Bonus Videos: Almost all of the Bonus Tracks
As mentioned above, the band released four bonus tracks from The Crane Wife. Unfortunately, I could not find a cover of “The Perfect Crime #1 and The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back”, but I did find covers of the other three. Here’s an acoustic guitar cover of “After the Bombs” by Mick Greenwood of the Boston band the Self-Proclaimed Rock Stars, performed as part of the band’s “Sing in the Shower” series. Here’s another acoustic guitar cover of “Culling of the Fold,” by San Francisco resident Shawna Olivia. And here is a solo electric guitar version of “Hurdles Even Here” by Argentinian-born Gabriel Trisca, a computer science grad student at Boise State University.