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Positive Feedback ISSUE 55
may/june 2011


Elbow, Build a Rocket Boys!
by Michael Mercer



Artists absorb their influences, their surroundings; it's a vital part of the foundation they draw from in order to express themselves. For a rock band, one of the greatest challenges in my opinion is finding their own unique voice while paying respect to the artists that inspired them rather than attempting to write facsimiles of their sound. This is where effortless authenticity separates the men from the boys. It's easier to mimic the sound of others than to work at your own signature. It's especially difficult to formulate your own art while honoring those who came before you without stealing their creations outright and claiming them for yourself.

Elbow certainly has a unique sound. Their music has always had a soft touch on the surface (not bubblegum soft, more like airy, melodic, brit pop soft) but beneath the cover of their moonlit ballads lies depth in both the beauty of their songs as well as the despair. Their vibe is almost like Elliott Smith might have sounded on one of his better days. Once again I am presented with the challenge of trying to describe music that sounds like a sunrise to me. Does that make any sense to you? Well, if it does at all, you might be able to imagine how this band sounds.

While they certainly have their own sonic signature, we can really hear the Peter Gabriel influence on Build a Rocket Boys!, the band's latest release. "With Love" for example, has a Gabriel-like cadence in the drums, the claps, the floating guitar riffs; even the lead singer's voice sounds strikingly similar to Gabriels'. The break-down of this song sounds like it could have been a long-lost b-side off Us. That sort of melodic theme continues throughout this record. There are also tender ballads like "The River" and "Lippy Kids" (where the title of the album is the part of the ascending chorus). "Dear Friends", the closing track of the record, is a gorgeous tune, and if you're a fan of Death Cab for Cuties' Plans album you'll probably enjoy this song very much.

While there are no great musical changes here (no "Bohemian Rhapsody" moments) Elbow sings each and every song like they truly mean it. You can feel their triumphs and their pain; that humanistic feeling of being alive. That is one of the few things we all share that can be expressed through music if the artist is brave enough to cut through all the bullshit and offer up a glimpse of their vulnerability and turn it into song. It's that word: Vulnerability, that sums up the sound of Elbow to me. Their music is like the warm embrace of an old friend when you need them the most. They have also accomplished something very rare in rock-n-roll today: A Sound that is identifiable because it is familiar, but remains original. This is no easy task, especially with new music, where the majors continue to churn out the same spoon fed to tweens crap day in day out (with exceptions of course).

I heard one of the songs off Build a Rocket Boys! while watching an episode of Greys Anatomy this week. I have to tilt my hat to the music supervisor of that program. The song was picture perfect for the scene it complemented. The imagery called for varying feelings of joy, sorrow, and regret. There were multiple characters, each dealing with their own dramas, and the song (admittedly, I'm not sure which one) cascaded throughout the scene and drew you closer to the emotion the actors were conveying. It was a powerful accompaniment, the sort of thing we look for in movie soundtracks: Sounds that help to amplify the feelings we are experiencing while watching events unfold before us. Actually, this album has been a sort of soundtrack for me lately, as we've been through some rough times, and it's the hope of better days that keep me vertical. The sound of this album gives me the feeling that everything will ultimately be alright. Perhaps that is the best way I can describe how I feel when listening to this record. If this sounds like something you're after, check out some samples on the interweb. I sincerely hope Elbow's music does for you what it has been doing for me lately: Giving me a bit of hope.