Reviewing a live album is an inherently difficult thing to do, because it goes without saying that anyone seeking out live recordings of a band is likely already a fan. And if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to have an idea of what the group sounds like already, and which songs you like, and so it really comes down to whether the performances live up to one’s expectations. Mind you, it can also be difficult when the reviewer is not a fan of the artist, or is simply familiar with them on nothing more than an average level.
I fall into the latter category.
I like The Decemberists. I’ve heard all their records, and there are a few songs I can name off the top of my head. But I’ve simply never delved head-first into their back catalog.
The good news for fans of the Portland-based band is that We All Raise Our Voices to the Air sounds great. Recorded during their 2011 tour to support their sixth album, The King Is Dead, a huge chunk of that LP’s material finds its way into the setlist; however, the group also explores plenty of their best-known songs, with impressive renditions of “The Crane Wife” suites, “The Rake’s Song,” “The Infanta” (a lyric from which provides this record its title) and more.
It’s been fairly established that The Decemberists are a powerful live band, with numerous reviews for We All Raise Our Voices… pointing out that even the newer material (which hasn’t been as well-received as their earlier efforts) sounds better live and flows naturally with the older tracks. This is true enough – apart from a jokey rendition of “Dracula’s Song” (the lyrics are hilarious, actually), the quality of the songs is pretty consistent, and the band has a strong stage presence. The album was recorded across a dozen various shows during the 2011 tour, but you wouldn’t be blamed for assuming this was all pulled from a single setlist.
The entire band is tight and cohesive, with singer Colin Meloy coming across as an upbeat, affable guy. His banter with the crowd is the sort of thing that can define a strong live act, and you can tell he loves being up there in front of the fans.
Bottom line? You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t already curious about The Decemberists and familiar with their music. If you’re trying to figure out whether their live show translates well to album format: yes, it does. Listening to We All Raise Our Voices was a pleasant surprise, and made me want to immediately go back and revisit the original records again (and maybe even give that last one another chance). If you’re new to the band, obviously this isn’t going to be the first album you go out and purchase, but if you eventually decide to, it’s more than worth your time. Many live records these days get a bad rap because of the stigma they carry (many reek of contractual obligation), but this is a respectable and enlightening release.