"Darling, is this love?" asks Elbow's Guy Garvey quietly in the middle of "Starlings." He is answered by a deafening blast of horns, an apocalyptic brass rejoinder meant to warn the world of an oncoming storm of romantic uncertainty. What kind of universe renders the joys of love as equal parts worry and wonder? One that has fallen in and out of obsession a planet of newly born babies, lost lovers, and fallen friends. Elbow brings this cast of characters and plots to life with Seldom Seen Kid (Polydor), its first album in three years, a study in carefully crafted atmospherics that intrigue without descending into melodrama.
Elbow began 17 years ago when the members met in college at Bury, England. They moved to Manchester and proceeded to release a series of critically lauded EPs before offering up 2001's Asleep in the Back (V2) followed by Cast of Thousands (V2, 2004) and Leaders of the Free World (Fiction/Geffen) in 2005. Along the way, the group became famous for clever, multilayered orchestral pop music and the evocative storytelling of Garvey's lyrics. For Seldom Seen Kid a tribute to late singer-songwriter and friend of the band Brian Glancy Elbow created the album on its own in a Salford, England, studio, giving production credits to keyboard player Craig Potter.
While the so-called concept album can easily be construed as pretentious endeavor, nowhere is it more appropriate than with Elbow. Using ambient noise between sweet lulls and stark melodic layers, Seldom Seen Kid invites listeners to poke around its aural library and browse for stories until they find one that suits them. On songs like "Grounds for Divorce," heavy, churning riffs buoy Garvey's wary summation of the dangers embedded in a typical day of British life. "There's a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall," Garvey explains in the track, making pointed reference to a local pub and the lure of drowning daily concerns in a pint glass.
Not that Elbow's world is a completely dark land: for every glum reminder, there are moments of bliss, domestic and otherwise. "Audience with the Pope" is a tongue-in-cheek litany of overstatement, during which Garvey attests that he's "saving the world at eight / But if she says she needs me / Everybody's gonna have to wait." Whether examining the victories and failures of life or swooning under the charms of love, Seldom Seen Kid spins a smartly crafted series of vignettes that keep Elbow in the upper eschelon of thinking-person's rock.
With Air Traffic
Thurs/8, 8 p.m., $20
Bimbo's 365 Club
1025 Columbus, SF
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