For all The Decemberists' wonky prog-folk arrangements and esoteric tales of ancient lands, the band remains well-liked because they're so sincere and accessible. In an interview included on the DVD A Practical Handbook, bandleader Colin Meloy says that after years of pleasant fan interaction, he realized that he doesn't need to put on any "fake coolness"; that's evident from the hourlong 2005 concert that forms the bulk of this disc. The show starts haltingly, with a fairly flat version of Picaresque's rousing opener "The Infanta." But gradually, the band loosens up, as Meloy starts connecting to his intricately filigreed sketches of barrow boys, engine drivers, and mediocre athletes. Halfway through the set, the songs' tempos pick up, the band starts playfully switching instruments, and the crowd sings along. The nerdy communal experience that's part of The Decemberists' appeal—and part of what makes them so annoying to their detractors—manifests movingly.
Much of the rest of A Practical Handbook is given over to The Decemberists' pre-Crane Wife videos, in all their low-tech, quirky splendor. "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" is accompanied by spare video images of a businessman constructing lean-tos in an autumnal forest, while "16 Military Wives" looks like a miniature Wes Anderson film, depicting a coup at the Model UN. But the most impressive clip here—and arguably the justification for the whole DVD—is a full shadow-puppet dramatization of The Decemberists' 18-minute epic "The Tain." The haunting animation clarifies the Celtic legend that the song is based on, but it also makes the music—some of the band's hardest-edged and most ambitious—sound all the more majestic. The video is as up-front and charmingly weird as the best Decemberists performance.
Key features: A short documentary, which covers the history of the band, plus the unusual recording conditions that produced Picaresque.