It is true that more often than not, live performance albums don’t measure up to studio recordings—production values may be limited, there are no retakes for performance flaws, comic banter, and planned or ad lib may not work after the first couple of hearings (where is it written that musicians must be comedians). Still, there is something special about a great live performance, an electric energy that a band gets standing up before an enthusiastic crowd of screaming and dancing fans that can more than make up for any problems.
The newly released double album by The Decemberists manages to capture all the energy of a live concert while obviating at least some of the problems that might have arisen by featuring performances recorded at a variety of concerts from their 2011 tour in support of their most recent and Grammy-nominated studio album, The King is Dead. We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (Live Songs 04.11–08.11) draws from a dozen different shows in venues from Nashville and Seattle to the band’s Portland, Oregon base. And if some of Colin Meloy’s patter, mildly funny the first few times, gets old with repetition—I mean, how many times do you want to hear that this isn’t a Keith Urban concert?—the crowd energizes the band with its joy in the music. Clearly, everyone—including the audience and band members—is having a great time, and the recordings capture that joy.
While the album’s 20 tracks reach back for songs from the band’s six albums over the past 10 years, it is not surprising that the lion’s share, seven tracks, including the massive hit “Down by the Water,” is taken from the best-selling The King is Dead record. A choice selection from the album, “Calamity Song,” and “Rise to Me” are on the first disc, and the second disc has “All Arise,” “Rox in the Box,” “June Hymn,” and “This is Why We Fight.”
The album opens with the dynamic drama of the song “The Infanta,” a line from which its title was taken. The three sections of “The Crane’s Wife” played here consecutively in a 16-minute block, unlike the separated sections on the original album, close the first disc. Other highlights include “We Both Go Down Together,” “The Bagman’s Gambit” and “The Rake’s Song.” This last cut is the only song from The Hazards of Love album.
The second CD opens with the lilting “Oceanside.” Later there’s “Dracula’s Daughter” which Meloy calls the “worst song” he’s ever written, but it quickly and perhaps mercifully morphs into “O Valencia!” The set ends with their crowd-pleasing “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “I Was Meant for the Stage.” For some reason, the theme—the performer’s need to perform—of this closer feels like a commentary of sorts on an anthem like Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out/Stay.” The cacophony with which it ends may be meant to suggest something about the nature of that commentary.
There are those who find The Decemberists pretentious, and their lyrics overblown. There are those who find them overly ambitious, and those who find them not ambitious enough. There are those who feel they have yet to have found themselves a consistent aesthetic. But if this live collection of much of the best of the band’s work demonstrates anything, it is that Meloy, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, Nate Query, and John Moen, with some additional help from Sara Watkins, are playing some truly fine music, songs that make you think, hooks that make you sing, and songs that can make you scream like you’re being swallowed by a whale.