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Elbow - Leaders of the Free World

2010-02-24 11:21

Elbow asks for the following combination of things backstage at live shows:
1 Litre of Vodka, 2 bottles wine, various biodegradable vegetarian non-GM organic snacks, 18 towels... and a very specific brand of mineral water.
(This is according to British music trends mag Q)

They are a Manchester band with real Manchester accents who were signed, then ditched, by more than one major record company before making it big.

First came Island (dumped them in one year) then EMI (dumped them in about two months). Third time round they got lucky with indie lable Uglyman, who released Newborn and Any Day Now. This got V2's attention, who released the Mercury prize-nominated Asleep in the Back in 2001 followed by Cast of Thousands in 2004. Up till this point their music focussed largely on lost love, personal miseries and other things many British bands seem to experience, particularly if they went to college. See: Coldplay.

Leaders of the Free World's subject matter may be different - it's mainly about politics - but not in the abstract. Rather how it makes us feel. Which is actually unpretentious, no matter what some stung North American critics have said.

There's "Station Approach", the opening track about a homecoming, describing that moment when familiarity strikes you in the heartstrings "... I feel like I / Designed these buildings I walk by". It's a tearjerker,a soulful soccer song, with a stomping northern chorus. There's "Picky Bugger" a fretful acoustic anti-drug song likely to have a deliciously opposite-to-intended effect on the listener. The creepy "Stops" describes unbearable unease that just won't "go under the rug"... it's the track Radiohead might have written if they hadn't lost their way to pop heaven after Kid A and Amnesiac.

Is living a good life pointless in the face of grand scale wrongdoing? The lines "But the leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones / and that's easy to ignore 'til they come knocking on the door of your homes" (title track) may make you wonder about this again.

Yes, the lyrics (by frontman Guy Garvey) are unusually good. Wry nuggets like "I drink until the doorman is a Christmas tree" are everywhere.

Elbow deploy their more obvious melodic hooks sparsely, artfully balancing their arrangements . They throw in soul tricks like handclaps, and subtly co-opt gospel choruses, bringing Garvey's skilled but unfussy foghorn vocals alone to the fore in confessional moments. Big loud stompers are followed by mournful acoustic tracks to vary the pace, in true Britpop style. The result? Leaders of the Free World is a potent combination of sing-along euphoria and a distinctive complexity that is Elbow's trademark.

"Distinctive", yes, becauseElbow's distinction is that they will remind you of everyone. Radiohead, U2, Blur, Doves, even Travis, as well as South Africa's very own Van Der Want & Letcher and Deluxe, but they don't resemble any one of these bands enough for it to be worth exploring the issue further. Which - let's face facts - is about as original as art ever gets.

Leaders of the Free World  is as close to faultless as any interesting rock album is ever likely to come.


Elbow are hitting an emotional pitch no one else is managing; one more personal and more potent than those that might be considered their competition.
- Ian Mathers, Stylus Magazine (album of the week)

A colossal noise that still fits in your pocket.
- Dan Tallis for BBC

Brevity has never been their strong suit, but this is Elbow at their dullest shoe-cum-navel gazing.
- Rachel Khong for Pitchfork Media (And they'd know navel-gazing!)

Nothing about Elbow fits neatly anywhere. This is what makes them absolutely brilliant. But unlike other kinds of elbows, they'll fit perfectly in your ear.

Susan R 2006/02/09 4:24 PM
Elbow This Cd makes me cry, but in a nice way.
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