Elbow, Build A Rocket Boys! (Polydor, 2011)

The Manchester group Elbow have spent over a decade making thoughtful, intricate recordings in an art-rock vein. I only discovered their previous album The Seldom Seen Kid fairly recently, but now Guy Garvey (vocals), Mark Potter (guitars), Craig Potter (keyboards), Pete Turner (bass), and Richard Jupp (drums) return with their fifth studio album, called Build a Rocket Boys! The band members definitely require their audience to have an attention span, as nearly all the songs on the new album are the kind you need to let grow on you. This may frustrate some listeners hoping for something with more of an edge, but on the whole it is still a worthy effort.

As I said when I reviewed The Seldom Seen Kid, there is no denying that Guy Garvery is the star in the band. He is certainly one of the most poetic lyricists in rock today, and all his songs tell compelling stories about palpably real people. In "The Birds," the album's opening song and standout track, Garvey sings of a secret relationship that doesn't last. But there's no point in dwelling on what was lost; "looking back," as Garvey sings, "is for the birds." On "High Ideals," Garvey sings from the perspective of a man in restless pursuit of an ideal, at the expense of neglecting the good things (a woman, in particular) that are right in front of him. The second verse is a good example of Garvey's sense of symbolism and irony: "There's a bayonet in my family things, it was made in the USA to defend the king. And though the sinew that thrust, and all the bones it splintered are dust, it's passed from hand to hand with the wedding rings."

Musically the album is a bit too consistently mid-tempo, but there are a couple of nice touches. "The Birds" has a haunting two-part harmony with a modal chord progression. "Neat Little Rows" shows that Elbow can elevate the energy level when needed. A couple of songs benefit from guest appearances from the Hallé Youth Choir, whether they're in the background on "The River" or singing along with the rousing chorus on "Open Arms." Otherwise, while the carefully developed arrangements tend to aim for subtlety. This is both a strength and a weakness of Build a Rocket Boys!, as the nuances that make the album interesting aren't really augmented with enough of a spark.

Elbow had already established themselves as one of the most interesting bands in rock to day. While Build a Rocket Boys! doesn't raise their stature, it doesn't lower it either. Elbow may not overwhelm you, but they'll hold your attention if you're willing to give it.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

an in-studio performance of "Open Arms"

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