2008 saw the release of a three-record series of singles from the Decemberists. Released periodically over a three-month period, the collection features six new songs from the group. Buyers were also given the option to choose how your albums would arrive, either as they were released or all at once. I chose to have them shipped all at once and after what seemed like an eternity, they finally came this week.
Following the 2006 release of The Crane Wife, Always the Bridesmaid demonstrates more of a return to their sound before this album. I was a big fan of their latest effort, but I felt that there were certain production issues and slight over-zealousness on a few songs that prevented it from being perfect. While a polished production level still remains, I feel the band was able to put their own unique tone into the songs that wasn't as prevalent on Crane Wife.
If there is one thing this band has always been good at doing, it's telling a story in their songs. Colin Meloy is superb at lyrical construction and his word choice for each line feels very purposeful. Many of the songs have a very upbeat arrangement despite being about rather sorrowful topics. The Decemberists are notorious for that. The riffs throughout each song carry them nicely and have a tendency to get stuck in your head.
While each song is a wonderful example of what this band is capable of, "A Record Year for Rainfall" is perhaps one of the best songs to come from them in years. The string instruments, laden with the drum and guitars, work so well with the vocals. The crescendo into the chorus sent chills down my spine the first time I heard it.
My only real justified gripe with this is the inclusion of two versions of "Days of Elaine." It is my opinion that the extended version works so much better than the abbreviated A-side version. The piano, bass, and guitar outro was such a fine piece of musicianship that there was no need to cut it out the first time around. I think even if they did cut the end, but didn't include an alternate version, I would have been happy. It just seems silly to include two takes of the same song on a singles series such as this.
I had a hard time at first getting into Jenny Conlee's vocals on the Velvet Underground cover, which is a shame because I really like her voice. There is just something different about it on this song and it took a few listens to for me to enjoy it more. Her harmonies with Meloy are always spot on and add another level to their music and I was glad to see that here at least.
Any other complaints I have with the series aren't entirely valid. While I appreciate the 180g audiophile pressing, it seems that it would have been just as effective as a collection of 7" records (it's my understanding that it's what the UK got). For some reason, the colors (red, green and blue clear vinyl), didn't strike me as fitting either. Based on the solid tone of the jackets, it seems to me that cream-colored vinyl would have been more appropriate. As you can see, however, none of these take away anything from the quality of the music put forth here.
The price of this collection may make it worth it only to the avid Decemberists fan. I grabbed the bundle that came with the T-shirt and after shipping, it was about 45 dollars total. I thought this was a bit steep for three albums with six songs and a T-shirt, but in the end I feel it was worth it. This is one of my favorite bands and it was great to hear some new material before their next full-length, The Hazards of Love, is set to drop in 2009.