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. There was also plenty of good stuff during the year for fans with an iTunes Session online release and a follow-up EP, Long Live the King. On the bad side of the equation, the band got a scare when harmonicist/backup singer Jenny Conlee was diagnosed with breast cancer, forcing her to miss dates during last year’s touring. (Conlee’s cancer is, according to frontman Colin Meloy, said to now be in remission.) It’s little wonder then that the Decemberists, as an entity, is now going on what has been described as a “multi-year hiatus”, which might not be all of a bad thing. Fans’ opinion may differ on this, but the group’s last two albums, 2009’s The Hazards of Love and The King is Dead, were scattershot affairs at best, and utterly pretentious and unlistenable at worst. If Meloy, then, wants time off to go write some more children’s books – he had one published last year called Wildwood — then that might not be so bad of a thing. Let the Decemberist rest and recharge, and come back in a couple or more years’ time with something new, bold and daring.
In the meantime, to sum up last year’s worth of touring for fans, the band is putting forth a bit of a stop-gap release with their very first live double CD — triple disc on the vinyl edition. In this Web-connected day and age, the very concept of a live album is a bit in question. It used to be, during the peak of the live record craze in the mid-‘70s, that artists would release one of these things for perhaps three reasons: to cover any sins of commission that they made on the original studio recordings, giving them a new chance to really nail an old tune that didn’t work on the studio LP; to give fans a bit of a take-home experience of their live shows; and to give new fans an opportunity to play catch-up in lieu of a studio-bound greatest hits set. That third reason falls a bit flat today, as anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can waltz into iTunes, do click, click, clickity, click, click, and walk away with digital editions of the original recordings for a mere 99 cents a pop, and thus create their own greatest hits LP. For the fans who want to relive the concert experience, again, if you’re savvy enough, you can find bootlegs online and even then those who are not quite as up to speed on what a torrent is can go to YouTube to watch grainy, shaky, live footage taken from someone’s iPhone. And, in the Decemberists’ case, point one — the reworking of old songs — doesn’t wash here, as the songs are pretty much virtually unchanged, save for the presence of a horn section on a few tracks. Thus, it’s hard to make out what the purpose of We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, a line taken from the song “The Infanta”, really is, aside from this: it is a sterling document of a band at the peak of their powers showcasing just how good they really are. Nothing more, nothing less.
When it comes to this live set, it’s a patchwork of 20 songs culled from 12 different shows on their American tour dates stitched together in a completely seamless fashion: it really feels like you’re sitting through a typical night, not a series of nights, at a Decemberists show. What’s more, the band has selected the absolute best highlights from those concerts, you can tell just by listening to this how well rehearsed the band is, how in synch and in tune they are with each other. Opening track “The Infanta” features pregnant pauses at key points – long enough for the gathered concertgoers to squeal in delight — but the band doesn’t miss a beat. In fact, the only time the band seems to be on the verge of falling apart is on the set’s penultimate track, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, but everyone seems to be having fun and are in good spirits as they caterwaul their way through their miniature prog-rock, sea-fairing epic. What’s more, the band lets its hair down and gets goofy: “O Valencia!” features a snippet from what Meloy introduces as “the very worst song I ever wrote in my entire life” called “Dracula’s Daughter” — more a fragment than an actual song, an idea that sounds like Meloy penned it sometime in the sixth grade. “Dracula’s Daughter” introduces the track before the band rips into “O Valencia!”, but then the band revisits the song fragment during the bridge of the latter, arguably one of the Decemberists’ better known songs. A nice, humorous touch.
Listening to this live set brings certain observations into greater clarity: Meloy has said that The King is Dead was very R.E.M.-influenced (and, heck, Peter Buck even plays on three of the tracks). Here, their version of that album’s “Down by the Water” features a jangly guitar ripped right from the R.E.M. songbook with such clarity that you can even hear, quite vividly, a little bit of the melody from “The One I Love” seeping into the song’s chorus — something you might have missed listening to the proper studio album, which, admittedly, was a little murkily produced. As well, “The Rake’s Song” sounds invigorating and fresh here, nestling neatly into the band’s back-catalogue, rescued from the dreary The Hazards of Love. And then, of particular note to fans of 2006’s The Crane Wife, the three parts of the title track’s suite are presented together in chronological order for the first time — the suite was broken up on the studio LP — which, while being a bit of a thrill to listen to, is a little overbearing considering that the full track runs just more than a bum warming 16 minutes in total here.
What’s particularly startling about We All Raise Our Voices … is just how affable and friendly Meloy is in front of a live audience. On record, Meloy comes across as bookish and nerdy, but, on this live LP, he is witty and personable, and much of the albums’ stage banter focuses squarely on him. On “Billy Liar”, with much of the audience already singing along, Meloy starts some friendly encouragement of some of those sitting in the front row that aren’t playing gamely. “I happen to know that, each one of you, you have a beautiful singing voice,” he says, singling out one member by adding “You, sir, have a beautiful singing voice, so let’s get a little more people, a little more louder, please.” Of course, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” features the ultimate in audience participation: Meloy gets everyone to scream as though they had been swallowed by a whale during one key moment of the song, and it is a fun, yet harrowing, sound, hearing just how “into it” some of the ladies near the audience microphones get into the spirit of the act. At the end of “The Soldering Life” when someone off stage offers that Meloy should stand up and dance, to much laughter, he just coyly turns the tables back on the heckler: “It makes us feel good when we play in front of a kind of a staid, seated audience, (because) when they do finally leap up, it makes us feel as if we’ve freed the town from the shackles of conservatism. … Now that we’ve got you all standing, we’re going to regale you with a song about joint suicide,” and then the band starts up “We Both Go Down Together”. Ba-dump-dump-cymbal crash. Mere minutes later, during the same song, we gets the crowd to sing along with some ghostly “ohh’s” that add a haunting layer to the track.
All in all, We All Raise Our Voices … is a fun listen, and one that really makes the case for the Decemberists as a powerful force, despite what you might have felt about those last two studio albums. Granted, the set is a little too heavy on The King Is Dead songs: slightly more than a third of the cuts represented here come from that album. Sure, this was the record the group was touring behind at the time, and, yes, it is arguably their best-known LP among the mainstream public, so it would make sense to lean a bit on those songs. However, something that reached a little more evenly across the band’s earlier, and better, discography would have been more fitting – especially considering that only three tracks from the endearing and enduring Her Majesty the Decemberists are represented here (compared with seven from the slightly underwhelming The King Is Dead). Still, at one point, Meloy wryly notes, “There will be many selections played tonight. You will, you will walk away feeling as if your money, your hard-earned money, had been well, well spent.” He might as well have been talking about this live album in particular, as I can’t think of a greater summation of the necessity of it for those looking to relive their favourite Decemberists concert experience, or, if you weren’t there, hear what the fuss was all about. Buying We All Raise Our Voices … is, indeed, money well spent, regardless if you’re a new fan or old, and is a fitting way for a band of this calibre to take a bow and step out of the spotlight for a few years, and take a much-deserved and much-needed break.