23. Elbow – Asleep In The Back

jp 40 23

Our first Christmas. Sat in a little cottage, beside a roaring log fire in a cold but beautiful part of West Wales, the good lady hands me a CD as one of my presents. This is long before the days when it has been acknowledged that buying me music is a risky business as I’ll probably have already bought it by the time it’s actually given to me, and I have absolutely no idea what will be inside the wrapping paper. As it slowly emerges, I recognise the blue cover and note the ‘Mercury Music Prize nominee’ sticker on the case. While it wasn’t top of my ‘must have’ list, I am pleasantly surprised by this choice and rather impressed by the good lady’s judgement.

23 Elbow

My early listens were largely positive, although I found it a little heavy going at points. My musical reference points weren’t quite what they are now and I didn’t have the setup to do it true sonic justice but, even with all of this needless negativity, I still realised quickly that there were a number of beautiful songs on this lengthy album. When the album’s title track was released as a single – it wasn’t originally on the album, later reissues from 2002 onwards had it added in – I dutifully picked it up as I wasn’t going to buy myself a new copy of the album just to have that song added in. But, what a song. The swirling opening of acoustic guitar and piano is majestic and the way the drums don’t so much enter as just happen to be there where previously they weren’t – it is one of their most musically simple but effective pieces to date.

The mantra-like feel to ‘Any Day Now’ has since become one of my favourite album openers while genuinely arresting songs like ‘Powder Blue’, ‘Red’ and ‘Newborn’ have lost none of their charm. It’s a remarkably powerful debut record and, as is so often the case when a band has had some time to perfect their initial offering, there is little sign of filler material.

The album comes to a close with ‘Scattered Black And Whites’, a beautiful track which I’m not sure I properly appreciated until it cropped up in the latter stages of a gig of theirs I attended in Leeds last year. Something about the mood it left across the room was suitably special and I soon dug it our for further investigation. The musical backdrop, with its distant backing vocals and pitter-pattering drums, is as homely as the lyrics themselves, talking of how Guy Garvey’s “sister buzzes through the room leaving perfume in the air”.

The recently issue deluxe edition is highly recommended and a link to purchase is embedded in the picture above as this one’s not on Spotify. But, whichever version you end up with, turn it up loud. It never sounds to loud, almost like it doesn’t have the capacity to disturb, only to soothe.

A self-indulgent way to pass the time

Hello, dear readers. The end of the decade best of list is proving tougher to finalise than I thought it would be, so that’ll have to wait just a little longer. As part of this process, I’ve been revisiting some of the reviews I’ve written over the past six or so years and thought it might be interesting to post them here and see if I was on the money, wide of the mark or simply babbling incoherently. I should say before I start this, I’m not overly thrilled with all of these and they will be the original texts as I submitted them to the magazines, and so any bits that got subbed by my erstwhile reviews editors will still be here.

To kick off, a review of Supergrass’ best of, from 2004. I’m in the middle of doing a piece about their charming new extra-curricular project, The Hot Rats, so I thought I’d drop this one out there.

Supergrass_is_10 

SUPERGRASS SUPERGRASS IS 10

(Parlophone)

The grammatically correct but aesthetically depressing title aside, this particular retrospective is something of an unknown history. After their tumultuous arrival in the midst of Brtipop, Supergrass’ star has appeared, through no fault of their own, to have been on the blink. Seemingly rather keen to point out that it wasn’t all cavorting on bikes and bendy-legged Muppets videos, this set gamely attempts to represent both sides of the ‘Grass. .

The soul of Britpop hasn’t lost any of its vigour when it reappears on a fair wedge of tunes culled from the band’s debut, ‘I Should Coco’, a spirit that is reprised on tracks from their underrated and notably under-bought last album, ‘Life On Other Planets’. There is a slight feel, however, of being down the indie-disco and the dreaded fear that Shed Seven might pop up at any time is never far from your mind. Where this record really strikes gold is in highlighting the band’s knack for contemplative, melodic acoustic tunes such as ‘Late In The Day’ and the glorious ‘It’s Not Me’. The parent album of this pair, ‘In It For The Money’, remains their finest achievement and is as deserving of the moniker ‘The Best Of Supergrass’ as this particular compilation.

Hugely enjoyable current single, *Kiss Of Life* comes on like a cross between The Charlatans and T-Rex with added silly noises, while other obligatory new track, *Bullet* offers a heavier sound but manages to forget to add a melody. Where they go next is unknown, but what they’ve already done bears some repeating.

VERDICT: Enjoyable nostalgia, but all you need is their superlative second album.

KEY TRACKS: Grace, Going Out, It’s Not Me

Originally published in Word Magazine 2004

***

I largely stand by this, five years on, although there’s a slightly snide reference to Shed Seven there that’s helping nobody.

The other one for today is simply proof that I’ve always known what I was talking about.

elbow

ELBOW

Leaders Of The Free World finds Elbow delivering a work of global majesty.

Beardy, Mancunian melancholia is an integral part of the modern music scene. Where previously local rivals such as Doves have stolen a march on them, Elbow have set about fulfilling the promise that was so clear on their first two albums. Initially purveyors of more muted, atmospheric efforts, this time out the band seem far more confident of their sizeable talents

Mostly set in the urban wilds of Manchester, the brief global view attempted in the title track proves to be a remarkably successful – now say this quietly – ‘political song.’ The beauty of lines such as, “passing the gun from father to feckless son,” in neither being too blatant nor too pious ensures that the ham-fisted, vacuous efforts of many before them are not repeated in this gem of a tune.

The album maintains its quality throughout, two of the latter songs amongst the best things I’ve heard all year. ‘The Everthere’ employs similarly muted percussion to that of Blur’s charming, ‘Out Of Time’ and is one of frontman Guy Garvey’s finest vocal performances on the record. This is only surpassed by ‘Great Expectations,’ which tells the tale of an imaginary wedding on the last bus home between our man and a hitherto unknown young lady, for which “a call-girl with yesterday eyes was our witness.”

Such endearingly well-imagined lyrics are typical of ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, an album that comes good on Elbow’s previous hints at greatness and which will surely rank amongst the finest releases of the year come December.

Leaders Of The Free World is on V2

Originally published in Word Magazine 2005

***

What can I say? I was playing the vinyl of this the other night, having just listened to the deluxe edition of ‘Asleep In The Back’ and was reminded that they’ve always been great, it just took the public a while to pick up on that fact. The rather lovely Jude Rogers, who was my reviews editor at the time, was part of the judging team who gave the Mercury Music Prize to them for ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ and she later told me that after falling in love with their fourth album, she was reminded of me banging on about how great they were and that I was right all along. Quite so!

£17.50 for a conversation in a room with a sticky floor

The first time I heard ‘Asleep In The Back‘, a winter’s night towards the end of 2001, I found it almost too dense to get my head around. These beautiful, ethereal tunes, simultaneously complex and yet understated, have since taken up residence as old friends. ‘Cast Of Thousands’ took even longer to make sense, and it didn’t really click until after I’d heard the rather wonderful, ‘Leaders Of The Free World’. This latter record contains one of my all time favourite songs; ‘Great Expectations’. Musically, it’s pretty great, but lyrically is where it gets me. Guy Garvey tells the story of a marriage that happened only in his mind, as he imagined nuptials with a regular passenger on the late bus.

“A call girl with yesterday eyes
Was our witness and priest
Stockport Supporters’ Club kindly supplied us a choir
Your vow was your smile
As we moved down the aisle
Of the last bus home.”

Perfect. Argue with me, if you like. I won’t listen.

And then, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ arrived and it all changed. It’s another beautiful album and it may well be their best to date – certainly, songs like ‘One Day Like This’, ‘Friend Of Ours’ and ‘Grounds For Divorce’ support that theory – and yet, finally, the great British public have come on board. I talk, as it must have become clear by now, about Elbow.

I had the pleasure of their company at Leeds Academy last night and I’m still smiling. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such clear vocals at a concert before as the sound for Guy’s mic last night. The track, ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ is one of the most gigantic sounding songs I’ve ever heard live and there wasn’t a moment in the whole show where the band were anything other than imperial and, frankly, fucking brilliant. It’s right up there in my top five gigs; I only wish I’d gone to see them sooner. They played ‘Great Expectations’ last night, at which I entered an almost trance-like state and stood their swaying like a ninny, completely lost in that beguiling song. Until, that was, the twerps behind me decided to revive a conversation they’d been having intermittently throughout the gig.

Answer me this. Please. Why the hell would you pay for tickets to a concert only to talk through the gig? I expect a little chat during the support act – that’s life. But during the main act? You know, the ones on the fucking tickets you had to give up to get in to this venue? The people you knew you were coming to see and, presumably, at least quite like. Why go to a hot, sweaty building, with a suspiciously sticky floor and speaker stacks that could destroy hospitals to have a conversation about hats and trains? I know this might be coming across as something of an over-reaction, but what goes on between the ears of these gibbering fucknuts? If you don’t know many songs, but still decided to buy a ticket, presumably you’re expecting to like the songs you’ve not heard? Thus, perhaps, you’d actually want to hear them?

Having completed a brief assessment of how likely they were to be knife-wielding maniacs, I opted to turn round and frown sternly at them. This caused a cessation of idle chit-chat for a song or two at least, but it’s an ever-increasing problem. Towards the end of the gig, as the band were performing some of the afore-mentioned, dense but beautiful material from the debut, an exasperated male voice could be heard yelping, ‘Shut the fuck up, just shut the fuck up.” He made a fair, if not especially eloquent, point.

Anyway, Elbow were utterly fantastic and I cannot recommend them highly enough. I’m sure the people behind me would too, except of course they’ve no idea if they were any good or not.

***

Had a quick skip through The X Factor this morning. Yeah, I put it on Sky +, so what? Alexandra kicked things off with a terrific, ‘I’ll Be There’. The one who always starts in Spanish didn’t, and then got told off for not doing so, despite being reasonably good, while even Pontins managed a respectable, if utterly unremarkable, stab at ‘She’s Out Of My Life’. Why Michael Jackson songs, by the way? In what way is he relevant to the modern music scene, that is so frequently a reference point in much of the judges’ critical opinion?

Girlband‘s ‘Heal The World’ was hilarious. Properly bonkers, that one. The little Irish Lego man was overcome with enjoyment during the performance, suggesting that there is, actually, at least one person who likes that song. Their fate was sealed.

Talking of shit Michael Jackson songs, ‘You Are Not Alone’ got a reasonable going over by Bo-Selecta, even if the start was a bit mediocre, only to be eclipsed by an opinion-dividing performance from Austin. I was actually quite taken by his version of ‘Billie Jean’. Who cares if that version’s been done elsewhere? Isn’t that essentially the basis for pretty much every performance on The X Factor? It’d be fantastic if each show was filled with new music performed by the wannabes, but it’s never going to happen.

David Brent – leave the joke alone, Louis, or I’ll tape your hands to your sides – was coma-inducing at his best and completely shit at his worst. Strip his story away and you’ve got nothing. If it’s done on merit, I’d imagine he’ll be in the bottom two next week.

JLS brought a West End show feel to ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and made me feel quite queasy. It was very late-eighties, New Kids On The Block-lite, and one of them has a hideously nasal voice that detracts from the half-decent work of the others. Louis’ only remaining shot at the title, and thus it’s easy to say that the-over-excitable-Girlband-dressing-room-loiterer is screwed.

Diana was, naturally, tremendous. The novelty ‘wow’ factor from last week had worn off, but it was still a wonderful rendering of ‘Man In The Mirror’ and her voice remains the most compelling on the show by miles.

Macy Gray was up next. In addition to the tinge of madness displayed last week, there was an undercurrent of menace and desperation added to the mix this week. Perhaps she’d been getting performance tips from Ringo Starr. That said, creative Brian – you know, the one they couldn’t fire after he turned out to be a shit judge, so they labelled him the ‘creative director’ – really did fill the tissue of ego-wanking with the truly bizarre concoction that the mad one was ensconced within.

Little, squidgy E-Owen was up last with, the not-especially shocking song choice, ‘Ben‘. He was rather good. Nothing more, nothing less.

Girls Aloud popped up for the results show and delivered a reasonably strong performance of their marvellous new single, ‘The Promise’. It really is good. I make no apologies.

Girlband and Not-so-Spanish-now contested the bottom two spot and, having gone to ‘DEADLOCK’, Girlband were told to go away. Quite right really. Not quite as entertaining this week, but then what was I really expecting?

Mixtape…blah, blah, nostalgia, blah…

I was about to start with a profound and incisive statement, but that new Bloc Party single really is fucking dreadful, isn’t it?

I’ve spent a thoroughly enjoyable day rearranging bits of the record collection and ripping assorted tracks to the computer in order to refresh the content of my mp3 player and contruct a decent mp3 CD for a long car journey that’s coming up. It’s wonderful just browsing through the tunes that have, at various times in the last few years, meant rather a lot to me. I did the slightly embarrassing, but hugely popular, swivelling-a-little-bit-in-a-computer-chair dance to Stardust‘s Music Sounds Better With You‘ earlier and it was hugely satisfying. And what about ‘Forever J’ by Terry Hall? A beautiful, beautiful song which was sampled on ‘Life In Mono’ by Mono, which I’ve also ended up digging out. However, whilst finding out more about it I stumbled upon the Emma Bunton cover version. Eugh. Now, I actually really liked that soul-pastiche album she did a few years back. The one with pink cover. But this is not good. At all. The original is, however, and it would seem you can still buy it via the iTunes empire.

The mp3 player will soon be receiving a number of albums that I can’t believe I haven’t felt the need to put back on there since reformatting it a few months back. Most of Supergrass‘ back catalogue is still absent, as are the first two Portishead albums and Thom Yorke‘s ‘The Eraser’. Not for much longer. Also going on will be Madness‘ wonderful track, ‘NW5‘ that came out as a one-off single a little while back, but which will feature on their forthcoming concept album, ‘The Liberty Of Norton Folgate’. If you’ve not heard it, I would put it up there with pretty much anything else they’ve ever done. It’s great.

And with that cunning link (that’s great and so is this) I should probably say a few words about the Jamie Lidell record I was on about the other day. Gilles Peterson has started offering a splendid service via TellJack that allows you to hear albums, in full, before deciding whether or not to purchase. You don’t download anything, it’s all done via high quality streams, but it’s splendid. That’s how I got to hear ‘Jim‘, by Jamie Lidell. I keep calling it ‘Son of Stevie’ because it sounds like that sort of record Stevie Wonder would be making now if he was a) younger and b) as good as he used to be. To me, this album slots in quite neatly alongside ‘Innervisions‘ and ‘Talking Book’. High praise, I know, but it really is the best soul album I’ve heard in yonks. And, I’ve heard Sharon Jones and the new Al Green. Anyway, there’s a track on the newly updated Mux (click on the tape in the right-hand column) along with a chance to hear the Terry Hall track ‘Forever J’ and the Mono track that sampled it. Plus other stuff. Stuff you’ll like, I’d imagine.

I remember now what it was that I was going to talk about when I was going on about mp3 compilations. I was listening to Jeremy Vine‘s show on Radio 2 yesterday (the outraged voice of middle class Britain©) as he discussed the possible charges for broadband customers in the UK. Apparently, devious downloaders will be receiving angry letters in the near future, explaining that what they’re up to is illegal. Assuming, of course, that they are downloading illegally, that is. They wouldn’t make any mistakes, would they? Judging by some of the calls to the programme, mistakes have already been made and there will be more on the way. Predictably, one of the ‘I ain’t paying for it, why should I? I’ve ten CDs over the last twenty years and they were, like, £16 each, so why should I pay now?’ brigade got on air. I’ve never really had a strong opinion about it one way or another, but with the number of independent record stores dying on their arses and bands failing to keep hold of their record contracts, you do have to wonder. Ok, so it’s a symptom of a jaded industry, rather than the cause, but surely nobody who loves their tunes thinks it’s a long-term approach? Weirdly, I’ve just noticed that the good folks at Norman Records are having a similar debate on their blog.

And finally, the nominations for the Mercury Music Prize came out t’other day and I was amazed by just how many I’ve actually heard and liked. The list is as follows:

Adele – ‘19
British Sea Power‘Do You Like Rock Music?
Burial – ‘Untrue
Elbow‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
Estelle – ‘Shine
Laura Marling‘Alas I Cannot Swim’
Neon Neon‘Stainless Style’
Portico Quartet‘Knee-Deep In The North Sea’
Rachel Unthank & The Winterset‘The Bairns’
Radiohead‘In Rainbows’
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss‘Raising Sand’
The Last Shadow Puppets‘The Age Of The Understatement’

It’s only Portico Quartet that I need to do any real research for – and I will, I’m sure. I can’t think of a time when I’ve been so in line with the Mercury choices. It could just be that I’ve bought far too many records recently, and therefore whatever they’d gone for I’d have been in this position, but I’d like to think not. From my perspective, it’s got to be between Elbow, Laura Marling and Radiohead. Radiohead are getting a bit of negativity thrown their way regarding this because of how established they are, but ‘In Rainbows’ really is one of their best albums and definitely one of the best albums of the last twelve months. Laura Marling is someone that I’ve raved about on here for almost a year now and I certainly don’t intend on stopping. ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ will be in my end of the year list and it’s a near-perfect folk-pop album. It’s an exercise in measured understatement, and it’s all the more beautiful because of that. However, I think it should probably go to Elbow. They went off, not in possession of a record deal, and did it all themselves; recording a record that they would want to listen to. It’s a wonderful, wonderful collection of songs and ‘One Day Like This’ could well end up as one of my all time favourite songs.

Any thoughts? Perhaps the blog will get spammed again by the vinyl collectors of Idaho. (See comments for previous post) I’m with Neil Hannon on Idaho.

Like I said, have a listen to the Muxtape.