Graded on a Curve:
The Decemberists,
We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (Live Songs 04.11–08.11)

After returning to relatively humble ambitions with their last studio album, The Decemberists have went triple-live gonzo with We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (Live Songs 04.11–08.11), and the results should easily meet their fans expectations. And while its contents may not convert the dubious, it might at least provide them with a clue to what the fuss is about.

A great many live records have been issued over the years by a diversity of pop and rock artists, and with a few notable exceptions, these documents generally serve two purposes. One, they stand as a commentary on the success of an act and a gift to those consumers who made that success possible. Second, they can provide proof that a performer or band can indeed put their thing across on the performance platform.

If pop and rock after the Beatles has largely been a phenomenon of greatness judged through studio albums, there has also been a persnickety attitude that those deemed great must also be able to exhibit their talent on the stage, the nude environment that doesn’t lie. This contrasts rather strongly with jazz, where it’s essentially considered a given that the players on a studio LP have made it there by already displaying their skill on the bandstand.

In rock in particular, those aforementioned exceptions to the standard of live albums as templates of success and proof have risen to some of the form’s most vital moments. For example, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo made it plain that the essence of soul music wasn’t located in the mind of a record label entrepreneur seeking chart success but in the mastery of one man and his crack band captured making history in front of a few hundred people in a jam-packed auditorium.

And if Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club was recorded with the intention of proving its leader could still bowl over a crowd and incinerate a club with reckless abandon, it was also a statement of defiance delivered to a public that had kicked him to the curb as unseemly and unworthy of their attention and respect.

Likewise, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live amplifies the achievement of a group very few people cared about while they actually existed, an apathy that doubtlessly shaped their status as rock’s greatest outsiders. And The Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead captures a single-minded and expansive band on a grand night making music that the confines of a studio simply couldn’t inspire or contain.

It should come as no great surprise that The Decemberists’ We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (Live Songs 04.11–08.11) doesn’t endeavor to the heights of the previous four examples. If its two plus hours spread over two compact discs or three vinyl LPs seems like a grandiose collection by a band that’s never been afraid of engaging with the maximal, the release is appealingly modest in its aims, the most immediate one being a condensed account of the band’s well-earned and somewhat unlikely success.

I say unlikely because their non-confessional, highly literary sensibility is frankly the stuff that cult status is made of. And I say well-earned because The Decemberists’ claimed their success through the traditional modes of high quality (and in their case, often thematically elaborate) albums and extensive touring, graduating from small clubs to larger halls and then to amphitheatres and multi-day outdoor festivals. So as an unabashed album band that can do it on the road, We All Raise Our Voices to the Air’s sheer length lacks arrogance or self-indulgence and instead testifies to the nature of a fan base where favorite songs are numerous and no one release has emerged as the consensus best.

We All Raise Our Voices to the Air also stands as a gesture of goodwill to the group’s devoted fans. But on closer inspection, it might have something more than just a statement on success and a thank you in mind, for its track listing, taken from a tour supporting their last studio album The King is Dead, insinuates that The Decemberists might have a little something to prove.

In this age of camera phones and copious YouTube clips, proving it as a live band is nowhere near as difficult as it used to be. And bands of their ilk don’t pull off shows playing in-sequence renderings of high-concept albums like ‘09’s The Hazards of Love via smoke and mirrors. But The King is Dead, while garnering its share of praise also seemed to divide critics and listeners over the perception of playing it safe and staking out the middle of a road paved with mere folk and Americana. ‘Tis true that King may have won back some folks put off by Hazards’ hints of prog-rock and metal, but for many listeners their last effort felt like The Decemberists minus the creative chutzpah.

Seven of We All Raise Our Voices to the Air’s songs originate from The King is Dead, and if that doesn’t seem surprising considering the shows partially included here were in support of that record, it also seems possible that The Decemberists are looking to integrate its less ambitious goals into the larger weave of their discography and maybe soften the expectation (a band instigated one, true) that in terms of scope every new release must equal or top the last one.

If the choice of seven songs from The King is Dead does contain a potential element of attempted validation regarding their most recent direction, their inclusion also simultaneously possesses an atmosphere of preaching to the choir. And this is okay. Actually it’s much more than okay, since We All Raise Our Voices to the Air’s surface unwieldiness is actually quite thoughtfully sequenced to deliver a pair of sets that build to very impressive climaxes.

If The Hazards of Love’s lofty concept is given an almost token acknowledgement via “The Rake’s Song,” that slight is softened (and immediately followed in the track order) by the inclusion of “The Crane Wife 1, 2 and 3.” While Colin Meloy partakes in a fair share of banter, crowd interaction and many humorous asides, it’s the sixteen minutes of “The Crane Wife” (which closes disc one, or side three of the vinyl) and the appropriately escalated grandeur of the already debonair “I Was Meant For the Stage” replete with an extended culminating orchestral skronk-fest (which ends disc two or side six) that provides ample evidence of the band’s ability to get right down to the business of playing live music.

And the band’s performances vary enough from their studio origins to make them worth the investment, but they also don’t lose the qualities that made them so appealing in the first place. This is particularly relevant to “The Soldiering Song” and obviously to “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which retains much of its splendor even after becoming a by now inevitable audience participation melee.

“Calamity Song” is also given a fine reading, and the concise pop of “O Valencia!” really shines in this atmosphere. Of course certain tunes are absent. I especially miss “Odalisque,” a track that would doubtlessly shine in the concert setting (and one I’ve unfortunately never heard them play), but if frustrated expectations are a part of the nature of seeing a band play live, this circumstance is certainly extended to live records.

We All Raise Our Voices to the Air is a very impressive document of some quite seamlessly selected (and sequenced) performances, but in the end it’s really no game-changer, which is to say The Decemberists are still largely the same band they were before its release. But if they keep on trucking, this 3LP set might end up becoming their Europe ’72. Its contents already provide a fine alternative to the underwhelming obviousness of a standard Greatest Hits collection.

Graded on a Curve: B+ 

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