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Manchester united
Elbow’s Cast of Thousands

Elbow are a bunch of sensitive, self-conscious weirdo romantics who chase down every impulse they have. If that description also fits you or many of your friends, check out Cast of Thousands (V2), the second album by this outfit from Manchester, England. It’ll keep you off balance as it hops from spacy sonic introversion to straight-out grinding rock to lovestruck whisperings à la Robert Wyatt to walls of sound that recall the early work of a gun-toting California record producer who’s facing a murder rap.

But it’ll charm you too. And that’s because lyricist and singer Guy Garvey is a smart fellow who seems well connected to his heart. Who else could write a tune that starts as a fantasy about mutilation before itself mutating into a beautiful contemplation on love as an opening of the self? It’s called "Ribcage," and with any luck, you’ve heard it on college radio, where the band have found a home. You’d recognize it. It starts with a sequence of blipping dots of synthesizer pulsing out a mysterious Morse code that’s made darker by the shards of dirty tremolo’d guitar beneath it. Garvey starts singing about pulling his ribs apart just as the drums kick in, dragging on a Ringo Starr–solid rock beat. And as "Ribcage" goes on, it just keeps getting wider and wider. Electric piano and organ and sampled guitar and a gloss of reverb build its palette until the London Community Gospel Choir thunders in on the choruses like Up with People on crank.

Next comes "Fallen Angel," which sounds something like the Jesus and Mary Chain thanks to a blur of gnarled guitar that claws its way along the bottom of the tune. Then there’s "Switching Off," where Garvey does his Wyatt, warbling through an ode to a love as gently as a butterfly flutters and stops as it crosses a garden. Meanwhile, the band start the music with a repeating cycle of electrical feedback that sounds like a tiny motorcycle idling, and a pump organ picks up the melody and softly wheezes away with it.

All of this delightful noisemaking didn’t bloom overnight. Elbow were around for 10 years, toiling in clubs and having near-misses with record deals, before they released their 2001 debut, Asleep in the Back (V2). That album was also something of a sonic playground, but it did showcase the best songs the quintet had accumulated while laboring in the trenches. It was good and potent, and it earned them comparisons with other currently famous Manchester outfits: Doves for their sonic edge and Coldplay for their emotional depth.

Cast of Thousands’ "Not a Job" — with its twittering phased guitar, its loud/soft dynamics, Garvey’s arching vocal chorus, and its big glossy sound — sounds as if it could have been plucked from Catherine Wheel, another English band far better than either Doves or Coldplay who hailed from Great Yarmouth, a Norfolk seaside town much nicer than Manchester. But that’s parenthetical. What’s crucial is that you hear Elbow if you at all like rock and roll with imagination and soul. They’re making the kind of rich, quasi-experimental music that Radiohead wish they could — pop songs dressed to the creative nines. Let’s face it, after Amnesiac (EMI), Radiohead either lost interest, forgot how, or became too self-important to write great songs anymore. Elbow are here to pick up their slack — and without the baggage that Bono brings to U2.

An EP called Fugitive Motel (V2) was released on the heels of Cast of Thousands in late fall. Catering to radio programmers and others with short attention spans, it’s got just three songs. One version of the EP has the same version of the wistful mod-noir title track that appears on Cast of Thousands as well as an acoustic take on "Switching Off," which is already pretty acoustic. Another has a remix of "Fugitive Motel." Me, I’ll take my Elbow straight up, or at least as close to straight up as these digressive musical sidewinders get. You can tinker with beauty, but you can never really improve on it.

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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