Dissecting the enveloping sound of Elbow

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By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  September 20, 2011

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HIGH IDEALS Elbow’s Build A Rocket Boys! uses the intensity and saturation of pastoral folk without referencing that genre’s telltale tropes or instrumentation. 

Like a husky boy after his second plate at the Thanksgiving table, Elbow's music has become pretty damn comfortable. It doesn't really rock, it doesn't really roll — in fact there might not even be a cymbal or a snare drum on their latest record, Build a Rocket Boys!, until the beginning of the ninth track.

But not all music has to rock or roll, unless it advertises itself as alternative rock. Still, it would be fair to say that since their swampy, atmospheric 2008 Mercury Prize-winning album, The Seldom Seen Kid, the English quintet (who are playing a sold-out Paradise on Monday) have grown a little soft in the belly. (Although Elbow have yet to have their OK Computer-moment in the US, they've won the vaunted Mercury once and have been thrice nominated — which included a defeat earlier this month to PJ Harvey.) But Elbow find their own reasons to skip past the ephemeral joys of rock and roll in favor of the controlled setting of their studio — where according to bassist Pete Turner, the band continually finds itself in a state of dissection and analysis. "The simplest sounds get pored over and really thought out," says Turner from his home in Manchester.

In fact, Elbow themselves might not even know what their songs sound like on a visceral level until they hear them through the ears of their audience. "Touring is a great way of realizing the effect you can have on people," says Turner. "When you see a couple in front holding onto each other, and you realize it means something to them."

Released in March on Fiction/Polydor, Build A Rocket Boys! (their fifth album since 2001) is certainly a well-constructed work, one that uses the intensity and saturation of pastoral folk without referencing that genre's telltale tropes or instrumentation. Instead, Elbow infuse the songs with mildly-progressive arrangements and extra-warm tones — electric pianos, tuned percussion, a sympathetic chorus (the Hallé Youth Choir), not to mention singer Guy Garvey's chiseled yearning. The end result sounds like a contemporary soundtrack to a film that doesn't exist — an estimation that the band themselves would probably approve of.

Magic moments do emerge in the foreground, such as the most recent single, "Lippy Kids," where a twinkling waltz takes flight like a spontaneous flock of birds. But Elbow are the first ones to admit that they aren't too concerned with the instant gratification that most bands peddle.

"We look at the album as a body of work, and that's what excites us and inspires us," says Turner. Yet as much as their work sounds like a soundtrack, the blunt reality is that there is no film to drive things along. In order for listeners to get the full effect of Elbow's music, they have to commit themselves to repeated listens until the bigger picture emerges. Perhaps in Elbow's mind, the idea of the visceral single is something puerile to the core. Concerned with longevity — more accurately, critical longevity — Elbow music gets its tie straightened by its wife before leaving for work. "We want to maintain our position," Turner says. And if all five members are democratically involved in the writing/re-writing process, think of how many idiosyncratic impulses must get killed along the way?

"We take our music very seriously, but we don't take ourselves very seriously as people," says Turner.

ELBOW + GLASSER | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | September 26 @ 7 pm | 18+ | $30 | 617.562.8800

  Topics: Music Features , Paradise Rock Club, Music, Pop,  More more >
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