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Songed Birds: The Crane Wife

April 11, 2008

Not only am I a fan of the birds, but also music. And not just the music of a Veery song on a summer day in the mountains, though I love that too, but the rock n’ roll. We birders are certainly not alone in finding birds inspirational, and in this semi-regular series (ie, whenever I feel like it) I hope to bring to your attention popular music that is inspired by birds. The first is one of my favorite albums, The Crane Wife by the Decemberists.

Portland, Oregon, based band The Decemberists are known for their elaborate, ambitious song-cycles. Frontman Colin Meloy’s lyrics are sprawling and highly literate and on previous albums have taken on the French foreign legion, turn of the century whaling misadventures and noir spy films, with a real flair towards the absurd without losing his audience in hyper-obscurity. The Crane Wife, their fourth album, was the band’s first major label effort and they came to impress without losing any of the things that made them so appealing in the first place. How many other albums have you heard that just drop cormorants into the lyrics? Which brings me to the bird connection, which you might find more interesting than then fan-boy ranting about a band I really dig. I’m no record critic anyway, here’s a much better review of the musical aspect of the album.

The story of the Crane Wife, from which the album is titled, is an old Japanese tale of a poor rural man who finds a wounded crane on his doorstep one day, takes it in and nurses it back to health. After releasing the crane, a woman appears at his home. They fall in love and are married. Because they are poor, the woman offers to weave clothes out of silk that they can sell, but only if he agrees never to watch her make them. They become wealthy and the man makes her weave more and more, not realizing that his wife is becoming sick. He peeks in one day to see what makes the silk so special, and discovers that a crane is at the loom, plucking her feathers and weaving them into the cloth. Seeing him, she flies away never to return.

Some story, and totally an inspiration for an album right? Well it works, and Meloy crafts some brilliant lyrics on this theme to go along with the band’s almost orchestral instrumentation. It’s a fun album from a great band, oh, and it is about cranes…. kinda.

  1. Michael Nelson permalink
    April 11, 2008 11:26 am

    What an original post. I went to find them on myspace and they had a site where I could listen to a few tunes. Quite nice – matches my taste as well. Who would guess that I have found new music by reading birding blogs. Thanks

  2. April 11, 2008 4:37 pm

    Glad to spread the gospel! They put on a kickin’ live show too…

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