Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Picky Bugger.

Recently I posted a run down of some of the late summer and autumn record releases I was anticipating. Elbow's third album, Leaders of the Free World ,was on that list, and I was hopeful about its potential for tantalising goodness. Having now acquired a copy of said album, I thought I would review the darned thing before the British press' hype machine and the ultra pessimistic North American indie media can start comparing the band to Coldplay (again).

Sad Sack with an Edge: A Review of Elbow's Leaders of the Free World.

The sincere expression of melancholy must be one of the more difficult feats for rock musicians to achieve in their recorded music. Regardless of the fact that pop and rock as (all-encompassing) genres are now much less reliant on images of bravado, there are still very few who are able to write and perform consistently sad music without it sounding disingenuous, or worse, boring.

Over the course of their two previous albums, Elbow have generally managed to be successful in their pursuit of enjoyable, if melancholy tunes. Combining bittersweet melodies, thoughtful lyrics and balanced, confident musicianship, these albums (2001's Asleep in the Back, and A Cast of Thousands, released two years later) have proved to be rather resilient. While not always spot on, they in the very least produced some truly memorable songs, from slow burning anthems such as "Newborn" and "Grace Under Pressure," to the heartbreaking beauty of "Scattered Black and Whites."

Elbow's third record, Leaders of the Free World, continues on the course charted by its predecesors, but this time around the landmarks along the way seem to have become slightly more stimulating and diverse.

Musically, the slick guitars, piano and smattering of Nigel Godrich-esque production elements that are the band's foundation remain in place. However, on the album's best tracks Elbow's sonic palette is augmented by some nice little quirks. Take, for example, the mischievous "Picky Bugger," which features marimba-like muted guitar plucking and vocals by Guy Garvey that are processed into a haunting wail at just the right (brief) moments.

Pleasure can also be found in the overall aural environment of songs like "The Stops" and "An Imagined Affair," which compliment each other quite well and, for this reviewer, alternately evoked images of floating in the sea and space. The echoey, vibraphone-wrapped chorus of "The Stops" provides the perfect musical backdrop for the languid migration of a school of sea turtles, while the latter tune might as well be played over a tinny speaker in a space shuttle, as the astronauts have their first glimpse of the sun peaking out around the edge of Earth.

Clearly, Elbow is a band that spends a lot of time in the mixing room, and on Leaders of the Free World, the production of songs like these is uniformly impeccable.

Of course, it's not all ballads for Garvey and Co. The band manages to break out the bombast on the heady conclusion to "Station Approach," emulate fellow Mancunians Doves on the album's jaunty lead single "Forget Myself," and get downright visceral on the excellent title track (though it's not as if we'll be seeing them share the stage with The Boredoms any time soon).

Indeed, no matter how aggressively they try to play here, Elbow have been and will continue to be directly compared to the current kings of sensitive BritPop, Coldplay. Such measurements are, as usual, rather lazy and imprecise. It can be agreed that, yes, barring the occasional outburst of musical belligerence demonstrated by Elbow, their sound is within the same broad genre as their better-known contemporaries. And the boundaries of the band's appeal are somewhat limited by the fact that none of their tunes pass medium tempo. But Garvey is a much more subtle lyricist than Chris Martin, especially when one listens to the former's well-considered ribbing of certain influential politicians on "Leaders of the Free World," which features a chorus that harkens back to Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers," and ends with a dig at the legacy of the Bush family: passing the gun from father to feckless son.

The Peter Gabriel reference is hardly accidental. In 2003, Elbow produced a thoughtful remix of the prog-pop star's "More Than This," and with Leaders, they've taken their Gabriel worship an even higher level. A number of musical elements in "Forget Myself" feel as though they were lifted from Gabriel's recent Up, and, though lacking in grandiosity, "The Stops" sounds so similar to "Here Comes the Flood," one might think the band had moved to Bath and taken up permanent residence at Real World Studios.

Leaving aside a discussion on the merits or demerits of mimicry as a form of flattery, such a decision by Elbow does keep the album from being a wholly original work. And further criticisms can be found in the record's loss of momentum about two-thirds of the way through. Where A Cast of Thousands lacked any surefire hit singles, it was a consistently fulfilling album from first track to last. On the other hand, the final four songs on Leaders of the Free World are neither catchy pop tunes nor particularly interesting curios -- a fact that takes away from the album as a whole, but can be forgiven based on the strength of the great tracks that come before.

Sad Sack with an Edge: A Review of Elbow's Leaders of the Free World.


Anonymous dog in water. said...

This album deserves high praise, but it seems to me what is keeping elbow from being incredible, instead of just great, is a superlative rhythm section.

The title track is so interesting: there's nothing really original, yet it's distinctly their own and rocks, and it's not very creative, but if it's not creative, then why does it feel wierd.

8/03/2005 7:03 p.m.  

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