11 November 2009

Albums You Must Own (#3 of a series)

The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction 2008)

Unknown to even some of the more serious music fans in America, Elbow is a five-man group hailing from Manchester, England that has been recording albums since 2001 (and performing together under different names prior to that, stretching back to the early 90's). Perhaps it is because the band has floated around to various record labels and not received a proper public relations push in the States. With the release of The Seldom Seen Kid in 2008 and the resulting awards and accolades that followed, Elbow's under-the-radar days are probably numbered. This past summer, the Mancunian lads opened for Coldplay on their tour of the US and Europe; played the main stage at Oxegen in Ireland; opened for U2 at Wembley Stadium in front of 90,000 fans; and headlined the Bestival on the Isle of Wight.

Elbow debuted in 2001 with the release of Asleep In The Back and became darlings of some of the indie press. [Note the inclusion of this effort on many "best of" albums lists over the past ten years that are end-of-the-decade vogue at the moment.] Drawing inspiration from Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the band was nominated for the Mercury Prize and garnered a Brit Awards nomination. But many of those same critics would bite back with luke-warm reviews of the two CDs that would follow: Cast of Thousands (2003) and Leaders of the Free World (2005). Specifically, writers were now defining Elbow as mope-rock artists and lesser cousins of fellow British bands Coldplay and Keane.

But in retrospect, these two records were solid, necessary building blocks that helped define Elbow's own distinctive voice found on The Seldom Seen Kid. While readily admitting admiration for U2 and Radiohead, lead singer and lyricist Guy Garvey embraces the album concept, inviting listeners to experience the band's work in a linear progression. Drawing emotion not only from its words but its lush orchestration, the opening cut "Starlings" is a template of sonic landscape that invites the listener to stick around for more. "The Bones of You" follows, and the nods to "The Seldom Seen Kid" - the nickname given to the recently deceased mate of the band, Bryan Glancy - and reveries of Five years ago/And sleeping through the day. Next up is the gorgeous, spare "Mirrorball," a tale of newly found love in which Garvey sings We took the town to town last night/We kissed like we invented it!

The mood abruptly changes, and Elbow shows it can write a hook with the best of their contemporaries. "Grounds For Divorce" lays a Led Zeppelin cum The Bends-era Radiohead sledgehammer guitar on the ears that compels you to get out of your seat. Is it a raucous wake for The Seldom Seen Kid? A reminder of bitter memories around every corner of their home town Manchester? Both?

The Seldom Seen Kid glides along and continues to flex its musical confidence, varying from the bawdy bossa nova of "An Audience With The Pope" to "The Fix," a Brecht-infused duet with guest Richard Hawley.

The twin centerpieces of the record are emotional bookends on each side of the spectrum: "The Loneliness of A Tower Crane Driver" and "One Day Like This." The former is a brooding, heart-breaking melody with murky, but thought provoking lyrical images about the dangers of success. "One Day Like This" is Elbow's swing at creating a crowd anthem, and it hits solidly on all counts, right down to the choral ending that throws a ray of hope amidst The Seldom Seen Kid's otherwise somber tone: So throw those curtains wide!/One day like this a year'd see me right.

Overall, it's a stunning record from a band that has the goods to deliver in the future.


Read the BBC story about Elbow being awarded The Mercury Prize for Best British Album of 2008 for The Seldom Seen Kid.

Watch the video of "Grounds For Divorce."

Performance of "One Day Like This" with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Chantage choir.

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