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CD Review: Elbow - "The Seldom Seen Kid"

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Artist: Elbow
Album: The Seldom Seen Kid
Label: Fiction
Release Date: April 22, 2008 (US)
Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)

We Americans don't always make the right decisions.

VHS or Betamax? George W. Bush or Gore/Kerry? Coldplay or Elbow?

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Undoubtedly, some of you are reading this and thinking to yourselves, "What is Elbow? Are they a band?" ...and that is, well, depressing. You should know who Elbow is.

Both Coldplay and Elbow were Radiohead-esque English bands that surfaced the wake of The Bends and OK Computer in the 90s. For whatever reason, Coldplay was the band the masses glommed onto, propelling them to the top of the charts and making them bazillionaires, while Elbow remained in relative obscurity, despite their abundance of critical accolades.

Luckily for us, Elbow did not fade away like Betamax, and a dozen years and four stellar albums later, we should admit that Elbow might have been a better choice. If you don't believe me, try listening to any Coldplay album four times in a row. It sounds lovely the first time, but by the fourth listen, you're anxious for the experiment to end. Elbow records, on the other hand, keep getting better and better every time you hear them. After four listens, you're ready for a fifth, sixth, seventh...

Their latest, The Seldom Seen Kid, is no different. Although it incorporates different themes and moods than any of their first three albums, they still employ their genre-blending witch's brew of prog-rock, alt-rock, post-rock, anthem-rock, dream-pop, brit-pop, etc., once again managing to sound experimental, melancholy and uplifting all at the same time.

Like the previous three albums, The Seldom Seen Kid is jump-started with an engaging opening track that sets the tone for the rest of the album. Starlings is a song that sounds like a lazy dream suddenly interrupted by alarm clock-like trumpet blasts, which last only as long as it takes to hit the snooze alarm and resume the dream, floating on a few minutes more before the trumpets return, waking us up to the fact that this is a new day, a new album.

We are fully awake as the second track, The Bones of You, gets us going at a nice clip before Mirrorball slows us back down a bit. Then it's time for the big, rawkin' first single, Grounds For Divorce (video), which is about as subtle as a freight train. Then the whimsical Audience With The Pope gives us a glimpse into the thoughts of a guy who either has his priorities right or is completely pussy-whipped, depending on your point of view. Then we get into some serious introspection with Weather To Fly and the haunting and huge The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver.

After that stretch of heaviness, it's time for some more whimsy, and The Fix is a fun duet featuring lead vocalist Guy Garvey and guest crooner Richard Hawley. It sounds like a vintage singalong that could have been written during the vaudeville era. Then, a brooding Some Riot sets us up perfectly for the joyous anthem of One Day Like This (video), a song that, like U2's Beautiful Day or R.E.M.'s Shiny Happy People, flirts with being overly earnest and cheesy, but damn it, we just can't help but jump up and down and sing along at the top of our lungs.

The album then closes out with Friend Of Ours, a touching tribute to Manchester singer/songwriter Bryan Clancy, a close friend of the band who died unexpectedly in 2006, a loss that permeates not only this particular song, but nearly all the more serious moments of The Seldom Seen Kid.

Compared to previous Elbow albums, this album feels a little more uplifting and life-affirming. It's about the joys and sorrows of everyday life. There's songs about love, and loss, and loneliness. It lacks the political statements of 2005's Leaders Of The Free World, the brashness of 2003's Cast Of Thousands, and the restlessness of 2001's Asleep In The Back. But like all the previous efforts, it is carefully crafted, full of subtle complexities, plays best as an album in it's entirety, and rewards repeat listens.

Time will only tell if this will be the album that elevates Elbow into the consciousness of the masses, or perhaps even earns them a Grammy nomination. If not, I'm sure Elbow will be content to continue their role as the best band you've never listened to.

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Elbow is playing at the Avalon this Friday, May 9, 2008. Click here for tickets.

Read the LAist interview with Guy Garvey... click here.