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Aural Pleasure 

The Decemberists are sometimes accused of setting history lessons and graduate-school dissertations to music
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The Crane Wife
The Decemberists
The Decemberists are sometimes accused of setting history lessons and graduate-school dissertations to music. While this more-scholarly-than-thou reputation embarrasses them slightly, group leader Colin Meloy refuses to dumb things down for the unconverted. In fact, The Crane Wife, the Portland band’s debut for Capitol Records after a string of indie releases, is the most dense and fanciful undertaking of their career, and that’s saying quite a bit.

Based on a Japanese folk tale that has long captivated Meloy, The Crane Wife uses the original story as a mere jumping-off point, a catalyst for dark, intricate songs about murder and romantic obsession. It helps that Meloy also possesses a strong melodic sense and his band plays uncontrived pop with just enough sonic twists to avoid the thoughtful blandness of Death Cab for Cutie (another smart, earnest group with impeccable table manners). Occasionally, as with “The Landlord’s Daughter,” they go on rococo romps that remind you of Kansas or Emerson Lake & Palmer, but they always escape to sturdier ground before the prog-rock stench forces you to open a window.

“Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” might be the hookiest Civil War lament ever written. “The Perfect Crime #2” finds The Decemberists effectively funking things up with a cool, slithering groove, and Meloy employing his heaviest pseudo-British accent. While this odd affectation may be an indication that Meloy never got over his Belle & Sebastian collection, it never really grates, because you find yourself accepting it as an essential narrative device. And any songwriter not named Pete Townshend who can sell a four-part, 12-and-a-half minute suite, as Meloy does here on the album’s second track, obviously knows a thing or two about narrative.

— Gilbert Garcia

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Long Island Shores
Mindy Smith
Mindy Smith, you might remember, made a name for herself with her cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” but it was on her debut album One Moment More that she declared who she was, with tracks like the unforgettable “Come to Jesus” and the ever-painful “One Moment More,” about the death of her beloved mother. Her vulnerable, angelic voice proved to be a less bluegrassy version of Alison Krauss’s, and her songwriting, intelligent and sophisticated compared to contemporary country, has more in common with the confessional songwriting style of Joni Mitchell than most of her peers.

With her sophomore effort Long Island Shores, Smith proves one thing for certain: She’s no fluke. Even if the new album didn’t match her debut — and it does, though only barely — her lyrics are every bit as consistent and her voice is still a balm that can buoy one in sadness while simultaneously inspiring hope. Nowhere is this more evident than the title track, a painful, but beautiful song of longing for her childhood home, where her father “preached at the church” and her mother “Sharron lies deep in the Earth of the Long Island Shores.”

Other tracks offer up more longing, especially for love; “You Just Forgot,” “Edge of Love,” and the duet with Buddy Miller, “What if the World Stops Turning,” contribute a mixed bag of success, ho-hum mediocrity, and disappointment. Geographical longing, however, pays off; an ode to her decade-long home, “Tennessee,” proves a sublime turn as she confesses, “It’s been 10 years now, and I’m rooted in your soul.”

The album’s greatest achievement, however, is avoiding over-production. Smith’s songs are, first and foremost, about her voice; it’s always front and center. The edge, when she displays one, comes from her lyrics.

— Cole Haddon

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