Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A new life for prog rock - Elbow, "The Seldom Seen Kid"

While my friend and colleague Marty W tried valiantly today to convince me that his comment that Elbow is great band was in no way meant as a decree for me to go out and buy one of their albums at lunch time, I did anyway. I had never even heard of them before today, but a few minutes of their soft, Radioheadesque sound through the iPod, with Guy Garvey’s seductively melodic voice and rich instrumental backings, was enough to convince me that it was worth putting off the phone bill payment for another day or two, and getting their album The Seldom Seen Kid instead.

Elbow is an English band that seems, at least on this album, to do some pretty amazing things with disarmingly singable tunes – melodies that actually have a melody, and then are given a sense of space and size by the way they weave into music that pulsates with an almost symphonic heartiness, throwing strings and brass and woodwind and even a small choir into the mix.

In a way, the music’s bringing together of the ordinariness of a good tune with the extraordinariness of creative, complex backings is very much what the songs on The Seldom Seen Kid are all about – songs that mix in the wonders and woes of love with the banality of daily life, like the way memories of a lost love come flooding back amidst “overdraft speeches and deadlines to make. Cramming commitment like cats in a sack” in ‘The Bones of You’.

From the big, epic brass chords that usher in the opening track, ‘Starlings’, you are lured in, seduced, into this rich world of deep, warm colours, but colours that are always in shades that you are not quite used to seeing, shades that seem just a little too valuable and rare to really belong in a space as accessible and inviting as this. It’s a bit like wandering into an open building to shelter from the rain and discovering that you’re in a large and beautiful cathedral, adorned with priceless art.

Not that these songs are exactly what you would call spiritual or even reverent, mind you. Their stories of love and loss are rooted very much in triteness of daily life, and the bigger things always take a back seat, like in ‘An Audience with the Pope’, where Garvey sings of his love for a woman: “I have an audience with the pope. And I’m saving the world at eight. But if she says she needs me. She says she needs me. Everybody’s gonna have to wait”. Or the way the glory of love is dressed in everyday clothes in ‘One Day Like This’: “When my face is chamois creased. If you think I wink I did. Laugh politely at repeats. Kiss me when my lips are thin. ‘Cause holy cow I love your eyes”.

So when all of that gets thrown together, you end up with a pretty terrific mix of clever lyrics, tuneful tunes, and fantastically rich, creative, generous arrangements, creating the sort of prog rock sound that shows that this is a genre that, far from burning itself out in the 80s, is still very much ablaze with all the vitality and enthusiasm of new life.

The Seldom Seen Kid is well worth postponing the odd overdue bill for, I promise.

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