I must confess, many times the attitude of the British music press confuses me endlessly. Plenty of great British bands emerge each year to relatively little fanfare, if not complete indifference, while the chosen few, for seemingly no distinguishing reason in particular, are heralded as the saviors of British rock. It happened with U2, Blur, Radiohead, Oasis, Coldplay, and most recently Glasvegas. Meanwhile, great talents like Frightened Rabbit or Pete and the Pirates get little nods here and there, but barely a shred of the praise heaped upon these other sometimes undeserving acts. Let’s face it, U2 hasn’t made a great album in almost two decades, the mediocre music of Radiohead’s In Rainbows was easily overshadowed by the gimmick of its initial digital-only release, and Oasis was never actually that good. So what’s the formula? How does one become the next “it band” in the eyes of the press? If you figure it out, let me know.
Another very good UK group that has never really gotten the attention or praise it deserves is Manchester band Elbow. While not likely to ever reach success on the level of some of the aforementioned bands, Elbow has quietly released five solid and successful albums since 2001. The band was initially lumped in with groups like Keane as sensitive arena rockers ripping off the Coldplay aesthetic, but they have proved with each subsequent release that there is more to their talent than just another blustery Coldplay imitator. On their fifth release, The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow push the envelope even further and distance themselves from those other, less creative bands. But instead of ratcheting up their sound, they take a turn in the other direction, slowing things down and adding a heaping helping of nuance.
Opening track “Starlings” begins over a soft, liquid electronic beat and extremely sparse instrumentation and quiet background vocals before the whole effect is shattered by a one note blast of horns and strings. It’s a jarring move that is repeated throughout the song, but the tempo never changes, instead remaining deliberate whilst tolerating the occasional joyous bursts of horn. Meanwhile, lead singer Guy Garvey sings with poetic grace about a man’s lack of confidence in living up to love: “So, yes I guess I’m asking you/to back a horse that’s good for glue/and nothing else.” Many of the other tracks on this record, such as “Some Riot” and “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver,” follow the same path of restraint as “Starlings,” building upon slow melodies and masterful turns of phrase, but always bubbling just below the surface and never quite reaching the explosive climax to which today’s pop listeners have grown more accustomed.
That’s not to say there are no barn burners on this record. “Grounds For Divorce” is a standout track on the record mainly for its stark contrast to much of the rest of the songs. It’s a massive-sounding Led Zeppelin-style stomp that literally shakes your stereo when the bass kicks in as Garvey sings about alcohol’s tendency to destroy relationships with lines like “I’ve been working on a cocktail called grounds for divorce.” Another up-tempo but more subtle track is the gorgeous “The Bones of You,” in which Garvey’s soulful, gravelly blues vocals carry the tune through a river of minor currents. The lyrics are again a standout, telling the story of a successful man who cannot escape the memory of the woman who got away: “When out of a doorway/the tentacles stretch of a song that I know,” reminding this busy man that “I can work till I break/But I love the bones of you, and that I can never escape.”
Elbow is a supremely talented band that is taking its sound in a more adventurous direction than other more recognized British bands of the day, but the British press has finally begun to stand up and take notice. The NME and Planet Sound both gave The Seldom Seen Kid a 9 out of 10 rating, and the record won the 2008 Mercury Prize. We’re still not hearing about how Elbow is going to “save” British rock, but perhaps that is a good thing, allowing Elbow the continued freedom to explore new sound textures and to produce great music.