Released after a decade of playing together and five years of record company hassle, Asleep in the Back introduced Elbow to the world as Prog Rockers with chips on their shoulders. Signed and dropped by both Island and EMI, then picked up by V2 after two Uglyman EPs, the Manchester quintet made an ambitious, theatrical first album. Elbow’s seriousness is audible in the symphonic time shifts, the gorgeous, disembodied vocals of lyricist Guy Garvey and the dramatic sweeps of keyboardist Craig Potter. Some of the portentously literary songcraft and murkily pretentious melodies are assuaged by guitarist Mark Potter, an Adrian Belew without the whimsy. He shines, smolderingly, on “Powder Blue,” a song that balances the band’s excesses of sonic depth with a fiery slash-and-burn. “Newborn” sounds like homeboys Coldplay; other songs appear to be mere studio enhancements of an era not that long ago; although they are more talented and adventurous than, say, Spock’s Beard, and given that they use voices more intelligently than, say, Pendragon, the differences among those last three bands from Elbow are matters of degrees, not philosophy or talent. Lines like “The trench conventions yellow eyes / Follow her the local flower / The girls a priest (to me at least) / Since Baptism peroxide” only add to the silliness.
On the much better Cast of Thousands, which employs a gospel choir and a concert crowd (on the great “Grace Under Pressure”), Elbow seems more relaxed. Drummer Richard Jupp and bassist Pete Turner are lethal here: what were homogenized rhythms are now breezy, intricate but still meaningful amplified gaits. The songs are even less linear, but an increase in freedom, of texture and compositional improvisation, helps. The album was co-produced by Ben Hillier, a true star, and although unstated, Elbow’s friendship with the Doves seems to have added a few positive beats here or there. “Fallen Angel” is particularly moody and potent: no longer made prone by the (silly) example of Marillion, the band attempts to re-define and manipulate Philosophy of Prog 101. The singing is bombastic and buoyant, the dynamics properly climatic, but there is real meat in the heady vibrato of the guitar, the autobiographical element of the singing and the swinging bellow of the drumming.