Albums: Elbow

Asleep in the Back, V2
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The Independent Culture

WHAT'S in a name? The Bury-based indie combo Elbow found out a year or two ago when, after Universal's swallowing of their label, Island, they were given just that. The laugh, ultimately, is on Universal and their accountant-driven A&R "policy" ­ having paid for the recording of Elbow's unreleased album, they now have to sit and seethe as this re-recorded version of the same album garners the kind of plaudits that have been thin on the ground of late for Universal's UK roster. Presumably, nobody in the corporation had noticed that the likes of Radiohead, Travis and Coldplay ­ all bands to whom Elbow have been compared ­ were getting rather popular with the punters.

For Elbow themselves, the setback doubtless provided both a salutary business lesson and a hard stone of authentic personal pain on which to hone their sketches of noble losers and dying Northern towns. Since the punk years, bands from the Manchester environs have tended to be gripped by misery at the grimness of it all, always orbiting around that fact, whether neurotically (Joy Division), acerbically (The Fall), puckishly (Morrissey), hedonistically (Shaun Ryder) or sullenly (Oasis). Elbow have been likened to their fellow Manc late-comers Doves, but there's an aspirational element to their work that's absent from Doves' grey-paisley stoner rock, an empathy with the downtrodden that speaks of a healthy engagement with social concerns, in a refreshingly non-judgemental manner.

When Guy Garvey sings of drug addiction in "Powder Blue", he neither moralises nor glamorises, marvelling instead at the warmth of junkie co-dependency ­ "I'm proud to be the one you hold when the shakes begin" ­ while a cymbal susurrates constantly throughout the song, like an itch that can't be soothed. Likewise, the opening line of the single "Newborn" ("I'll be the corpse in your bathtub") uses shock tactics to evoke the depth and intensity of lifelong devotion. Elsewhere, the band's bleak North-west surroundings are transmuted through poetic lines such as: "Slide in shallow cobble-creep/ Burn your mark and leave."

Musically, the Elbow sound is largely dependent on the Potter brothers, Mark and Craig (guitars and keyboards, respectively), who apply their marks with a restraint and attention to timbres and textures that recalls Talk Talk as well as Radiohead. Horns and strings are used sparingly on a few tracks, and one gets the impression that unless a sound is absolutely vital to the mood and moment of a piece, it isn't used. My only misgiving is that at times, the ghost of Genesis hovers around them ­ especially in Garvey's vocals, which resemble Peter Gabriel's ­ though doubtless those poor saps at Universal would hardly have considered that a liability. Not that it concerns them now, of course.

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