In psychology, the “just-noticeable difference” refers to the minimum difference between two colors that is required for a human to notice them. In live albums, the “just-noticeable difference” is the minimum difference between the studio album version and the live albums which is required for the live album to be worth a listen. If a band wants to release a live album (without video, that is), there needs to be some sort of variation or special flair to the songs. Case in point: the Decemberists, in their new live album We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, include a two-minute segment during which drummer John Moen shows off his yodeling abilities. The two-hour selection of live songs from the literary-indie-folk band is a generous heap of some of the band’s best songs, almost all of which transmit that infectious stampede aesthetic that is the hallmark of great live performances.
The Decemberists have something of a reputation for their charismatic live performances, which often include lengthy conversations with the audience, sing-alongs and crowd participation in songs (most notably, frontman Colin Meloy asks the audience to scream like they’re being swallowed by a whale during the climax of the 12-minute “Mariner’s Revenge Song”, one of this album’s best). Unfortunately, most of us can’t actually be at a Decemberists concert, but that’s where We All Raise Our Voices come in. Perhaps the best thing about these songs is that they simply sizzle with an intrinsic, live energy that a surprising number of bands fail to harness during concerts. The bad songs (I will never enjoy “I Was Meant For The Stage”) are still bad, and the great songs are still great, but these are certainly not the studio versions of Decemberists songs with applause at the end of each track.
Meloy and his crew are energetic and at times very funny, and though the phrase is very overused, I can honestly say I felt very close to the experience of watching them play when Meloy took a brief break from the music to ramble about freeing the venue’s city from “the shackles of conservatism.” For the more conservative (and by that I mean with one’s time) listener, these ad libs are really the only new things offered by the album. Other than, that is an amusing performance of the “worst song [Colin Meloy] ever wrote”, something called “Dracula’s Daughter”, which goes over so poorly that it soon falls apart and segues into one of the band’s better songs, “O Valencia.”
The only solid complaint I can raise against this collection (for, unlike most live albums, these songs are taken from several different concerts) is the selection of songs, which is noticeably and sorely lacking in more than one song from 2009’s excellent album The Hazards of Love and unfortunately packed with a few more songs from the band’s drabber two first albums than I would like. But the album is, after all, twenty tracks and two hours, and filled with plenty of classics like “The Crane Wife” (all three parts played in order!) and “We Both Go Down Together” (with a haunting extra verse for which the crowd plays the part of background choir). Besides Hazards, a full sampling of the band’s material is in attendance.
We All Raise Our Voices is definitely not indispensable, and perhaps not worth spending money on, but it offers a fresh and undeniably entertaining bundle of songs by a diverse band with a unique and charming stage presence. It’s a robust and admirable approximation of seeing the band in concert; whether an approximation is worth the reader’s money or time is left for the reader to decide. Score: 7/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor