Originally appeared in The Cauldron, (2008)
Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer
Emotion. Whatever the genre, tempo, or volume of the song, music seeks to elicit emotions in the listener. From the most agressive speed metal, to the corniest polka and J-Pop, music that fails to move its audience, essentially just fails. So I realize that describing any kind of music as ‘stirring up emotions in the listener’ is pretty redundant. Hell, I could be talking about anything between Yanni and Napalm Death – so I understand the grain of salt you ight be taking, but when I say that the British Indie band Elbow creates the kind of music that makes one genuinely feel things, understand that I mean it as the highest sort of praise.
Elbow has been around for a while now – their first UK EP debuted in 1998, and they debuted stateside in 2002 with their first full-length, Asleep in the back, which (like so many artists profiled in Now Hear This) was critically praised, and sold like whatever the opposite of hotcakes is – but that’s neither here nor there. We’re going to focus on their two most recent albums, as it’s actually possible to locate and obtain them with some ease here in the States.
2005’s Leaders Of The Free World saw Elbow really hitting its stride – the band’s quirky blend of traditional rock with piano, ethnic percussion, and the odd bit of pizzicato strings provided the perfect backdrop to frontman Guy Garvey’s Peter Gabriel-esque voice and awkwardly literate, disarmingly candid lyrics. Tracks like “Station Approach” find the band striding in a hesitant, yet steady groove, whereas the single “Forget Myself” opts for a slightly more bombastic and confident stand. The title track slithers along with an oily, snaky feel that manages to provide social commentary without any annoying grandstanding like so many The album is full of moments like this – where the potential of ‘indie’ rock seems limitless, and utterly free of pretension.
However, it’s in The Seldom Seen Kid (released this past march) that sees this Manchester quintet reach a plateau that is (to pardon the author’s unforgivably awful pun) seldom seen by an Indie band. Forget for a second that the Coen Brothers’ tapped the gallows-humor blues rock of “Grounds for Divorce” for the Burn After Reading trailer, forget that they just walked away with their first Mercury Prize, edging out Radiohead’s In Rainbows – Kid is that rare sort of record that gets exponentially better upon consecutive listens. Elbow focuses on their strengths on this album – and created a charming, quaint sort of masterpiece that sneaks up on you – though many won’t know what to make of Kid at first. Chock full of quiet, introspective moments, Kid’s brilliance isn’t always immediately obvious.
Starting off with “Starlings” Garvey & Co’s delicately composed dynamics ebb and flow their way through a young man’s uncertain footsteps, taking the listener through all the emotional ups and downs of an emotionally stirring film, steadily increasing in both bravado and clarity, until it blows up -climaxing in a breathtaking crescendo when our hero finally gets the bloody words out – and this is all in the first track. The aforementioned “Grounds For Divorce” and “An Audience With The Pope” that doesn’t try to sound epic, or grandiose – yet is undeniably both. “The Fix” sees Garvey team up with Richard Hawley (formerly of Pulp, and a damn fine listen in his own regard) for a delightfully snarky hustler story that packs as much charm as any of the Ocean’s films, and “On A Day Like This” the band pokes fun at its own wordiness with lyrics like “what made me behave that way/using words I never say… ‘cause holy cow, I love your eyes” – and the tongue-in-cheek feel is miles away from what you’d expect from a Coldplay, or a U2 – there’s precious little ego here.
But it’s on “Mirrorball” – a track that owes as much of its sound to Japanese composer Yasunori Mitsuda as any ballad – that Elbow shines the brightest. At its heart a simple story, Elbow employs their unique ability to make the universal intimate, and weaves a tale that is simultaneously intimate and accessible, as big as time, and close as a whisper. It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Seldom Seen Kid is an album to fall in love with, and probably to.
Essentially, Elbow makes stirring, emotional music without a hint of self-indulgence, the kind of music that can make people believe in things they never thought they would. It is powerful, dynamic, and I feel genuinely sorry for anyone missing out on it. So grab a cup of tea, set aside an hour or so, and let yourself believe in love – even if only for a moment.