Just before the Decemberists took the stage at the Wiltern on Saturday night, a plummy British voice came over the PA, welcoming the aud to the show and inviting them to imagine themselves on a “rocky precipice” overlooking a desert where the “wind brings the scent of lavender” and a group of figures can be seen in the distance. Of course, the figures in the story are the Decemberists, but these days, the Portland, Ore., band must feel like they’re the ones on the precipice.
“The Crane Wife,” their just-released fourth album, is also their first for Capitol Records, a giant step up from their former label, the respected indie Kill Rock Stars. Saturday’s solid if not quite triumphant show should calm the stomachs of their supporters: The Decemberists clearly have the tools to play in the majors, even if they have not yet completely figured out how to make the transition.
Colin Meloy doesn’t look like a rock star. In his soft but snug jacket, tie knotted high on his neck, bangs hanging loosely in front of his horn-rims, he looks like someone one’s more likely to see on a panel of McSweeney’s writers, parsing the contemporary novel alongside Jonathan Frazen and Dave Eggers. But there he was Saturday night, leading his band at a sold-out Wiltern, helping the aud warm up their voices so they could sing along (his vocal exercise: “This is a wonderful show”); singing “16 Military Wives” into a fan’s cell phone; and even joking how the new album was manufactured by the “ancient oompa-loompas” who toil below Capitol’s headquarters, which he called “that funny round tower on Hollywood and Vine.”
Meloy also brings a literary sense of neatness to his music. He’s a storyteller who disappears into character and style, singing his artfully word-dense lyrics (“Among the bones of cormorants/no boot-mark here nor fingerprints”) in a nasal bleat equipped with an uncertain tremolo that curlicues around his sing-song melodies. His songs, which can run from chanteys, lullabies and parlor songs to prog-rock riffage, are finely detailed; the addition of violinist Lisa Molinaro adds some extra weight, but the music still sounds spacious and light on its feet.
Only during “Perfect Crime #2” did the band sound cluttered, falling over themselves and never quite locking into the song’s staccato, Talking Heads funk riff. They were much more comfortable on “The Landlord’s Daughter” (one-third of the 11-minute suite “The Island”), with Jenny Conlee’s organ driving the riffs, giving the music a “Thick as a Brick” Jethro Tull feel, or on pastiches such as the Grand Guignol lullaby of “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning” and the Dickens-meets-Brecht cautionary tale “Shankill Butchers.”
But like a short-story writer working on his first novel, Meloy still hasn’t got a handle on how to pace a longer show. The 90-minute set, bracketed by the opening and closing songs from “The Crane Wife,” lost momentum around two-thirds of the way through; one has to wonder how he could have missed the chance to finish this show with his ambivalent anthem “Los Angeles, I’m Yours.” Everything that came after felt anticlimactic, although campfire ballad “Sons and Daughters” made for a fine finale, the audience’s now warmed voices chanting, “Hear all the bombs, they fade away.”
It was a lovely moment, orchestrated by an obviously talented musician. Meloy’s eccentric and quirky brand of music can certainly command a larger audience, but it remains to be seen if that audience is big enough for a major label.
The Decemberists play New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom on Nov. 3.