Elbow :: Dead in the Boot

Elbow-DeadInTheBootOnce upon a time, the B-sides of albums were enjoyed and sought after, almost as much as their glossier, more popular brother-and-sister tracks, who’d taken up residence on the album’s A-side. In modern times, sadly, B-sides have been relegated to the domain of hardcore fanboyism (“Omigod! The White Stripes just put out a new B-side! Squeal!”), and those terminally affected by that most dreaded of modern, first world afflictions: Hipsterism (“It’s a B-side. It’s so underground even I haven’t heard it. You’re probably not going to understand it.”).

This is why it’s perfectly understandable that the new album of B-sides, Dead in the Boot, by U.K. darlings Elbow, didn’t quite garner the same mass media publicity frenzy as, say, The Seldom Seen Kid. That being said, this album is easily just as good as their full, studio albums (and maybe even slightly better that their 2011 album, Build a Rocket Boys!), spanning almost a decade of their illustrious career.

Some tracks on this album are live, and what is perhaps most impressive is that the Ramsbottom lads sound every bit as good live, as they do on their more polished studio albums. Dead in the Boot is a coy nod to their 2001 debut album, Asleep in the Back, which was shortlisted for U.K.’s Mercury Prize, and nominated for a BRIT Award. In a way, one gets the impression that things have come full circle for the band with their latest release.

Although Dead in the Boot is a B-side compilation, do not make the mistake of thinking it’s just a small affair to tie fans over until the release of their next major album. Boot is a full-fledged Elbow album, more than capable of holding its own when compared to the band’s earlier offerings. It’s also a great opportunity to hear new sounds and a new mood from our favourite blue collar musicians (seriously, is it just me, or does Guy Garvey look a few seconds away from excusing himself to go back to his day job as a construction foreman?) For this album, I’m going to be doing something a little different. Instead of giving the album one single rating at the end of the review, I’m going to rate the tracks themselves as well. What can I say, I’m an Elbow fanboy, who refuses to pass up the chance of waxing poetic about my favourite band.

 

Elbow-1The Good:

‘Whisper Grass’ starts off the album, and instantly you realize two things: 1) “Hey! It’s Elbow!” and 2) “Hey! Did you guys do something different with your sound?”

The track sounds both familiar, and also slightly different. Elbow’s shuffling drums (strongly reminiscent of ‘Mirrorball’ from The Seldom Seen Kid), and chiming, almost bell-like piano accompaniment are immediately recognizable, as are Garvey’s hushed, tender vocals. We’re firmly back in familiar Elbow territory, except, we’re not. It sounds a little like we’ve caught the boys relaxing at home, in the evening, after a long day of recording. There’s a distinctly nocturnal feel to this track. Around the two-minute-and-ten-seconds mark, the music explodes brilliantly outwards, in a shimmering cascade of guitar and drumming brilliance. It’s not like we haven’t heard this particular trick before, however the tone here is different, slightly more somnolent, and slightly less brilliant than their previous releases. The track balances soft, touching vocals, and electric brilliance, with ease and grace. Verdict: 8.3 (Great)

‘Lucky With Disease’ brings out a side of Elbow that we haven’t heard before. This hushed, introspective track strongly recalls the early sound of Radiohead, and even Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd. Garvey’s vocals are as tender as ever, albeit this time they get the Thom Yorke-muddy-electronic treatment. It’s a highly effective sonic device, that lends the track a sense of nighttime introspection. It almost sounds as if Garvey’s singing this song to himself (a sort of quiet, self-confession), alone in the corner of a nightclub. The effect is further underlined by the almost ubiquitous background conversation (another element that strongly recalls Pink Floyd at their most experimental). Verdict: 9.0 (Amazing)

‘Lay Down Your Cross‘ switches gears from Garvey mumbling to himself in a corner, to him taking the spotlight in a sort of waltz-like pavane. It’s almost as if Garvey’s shuffled to the barroom piano in the corner, and started playing an intensely personal song, apparently dedicated to a nameless significant other of his. The melody circles around the piano ostinato, furthering the sense that this song ought to be slow danced to, rather than just listened. Verdict: 8.5 (Great)

Rusty, clangy, buzzing guitar strings make ‘The Long War Shuffle’ into a somewhat subdued chain-gang number. The slide guitar solos further serve to heighten the impression that this track would feel right at home among delta blues musicians. Take this comment with a grain of salt, though. ‘Long War‘ is more the British man’s approximation of delta blues (albeit a damn good one). It still maintains the polished veneer that we’ve come to expect from Elbow. The relentless, driving drums in the background continuously remind the listener of the track’s titular march, and also lend the song a sultry, sullen feel. The song manages to hit upon, and maintain a perfect moodiness that really works towards selling the concept of the track. Verdict: 9.0 (Amazing)

‘McGreggor’ is a live track, and that adds to the atmosphere of the song, making it something that sounds unique, almost as if you’re not really going to hear it played quite the same way again. Guy Garvey’s vocals take on a lugubrious tone, somewhat reminiscent of Tom Waits, minus the whisky- and cigarette-stained gravelly-ness. Both the concept and the tone of the track have a sort of chain-gang feel to them that work wonderfully in the live context. Vocal wailings reminiscent of ‘Grounds For Divorce’, and dour and dark lyrics (containing what might just be my favourite line on the album: “Father figures and motherf**kers / Who knew the man”), give listeners the feeling that they’re listening to the eulogy of a very bad man from the underground of sleaze, crime, and general human vileness. The music perfectly complements the lyrics, with a sort of almost dub feel to them, and the ever-present eeriness of the backing rock organ. All in all, this is probably my favourite track on the record. Verdict: 9.5 (Amazing)

Elbow-2‘Buffalo Ghosts’ lapses back into the well-trodden Elbow territory of gentle, hushed ballads. This track is somewhat reminiscent of the tone and feel that the band adopted on their 2011 album Build a Rocket Boys! In a way, ‘Ghosts’ is a love song, but don’t think it’s one of those “I love you, I love you, I love you. . .” affairs. This track is not so much about the actual “love”, but rather the intrinsic affection that grows between two people who are genuinely great friends (and possibly also lovers). Muted, lo-fi background vocals invite comparisons with Radiohead’s album Kid A (the track contains vague echoes of ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ at times). Verdict: 9.0 (Amazing)

‘Waving From Windows’ starts more or less unlike any other Elbow track we’ve heard so far. Muted electronic bleeps and bloops (somewhat reminiscent of ’80s sci-fi soundtracks) serve as the backing canvas for this track. It’s profoundly nocturnal, and the strings that blossom out around the minute-and-twenty-second mark sound like the nightly bioluminescence of exotic sea creatures. The whole track is suffused by a backing drone that further serves to heighten the impression that we’re listening to some space-themed mood music, in the lounge of a starship in the far future. On this track, maybe even more than on previous songs, Garvey’s vocals are masterfully blended into the accompanying musical tapestry, making for an exceptionally homogenous, and smooth sound. Verdict: 8.5 (Great)

From the first koto-like tones of ‘Snowball’ I found myself strongly reminded of Pink Floyd (especially ‘Wish You Were Here’, although this track bears little sonic resemblance to it, aside from the opening feel). The chiming, bell-like tones and strongly Japanese-influenced accompaniment put one in mind of a quiet temple, somewhere in the heart of Kyoto. The track doesn’t really bring anything new to Garvey’s soothing vocal formula, up until the two-minute-and-fifty-second mark, where the song breaks into a fevered, slightly chanted burst of sound. At this point the “snowball of little white lies”, mentioned in the song’s opening, bursts and shatters among an overlapping chorus, reminding the listener that the consequences will “come and visit you”. The music is highly effective, despite the somewhat contrived lyrics. Verdict: 8.0 (Great)

‘Gentle As’ seems to want to leave the listener with one last tender, Garvey-driven ballad, and it (somewhat surprisingly) manages to put a fresh spin on this pattern. Despite having heard more or less the same kind of ballads throughout the entire album, we’re still willing to listen to one last one. The drum and guitar accompaniment gives the listener a sense of finality (to be expected from the closing track of the album). Throughout the track, one gets the feeling that ‘Gentle’ is one of those songs that have (somewhat bafflingly) ended up on the cutting room floor. In places you hear the lads openly talking about the song, commenting on how it’s going, and even coughing here and there. The track’s end cements the “unfinished” feel of the song, and the feeling that we’ve just sat through one of Elbow’s jam sessions. As the song fades out, we hear the band discussing the track, humming bits of the vocals, and generally shuffling about. In a way, it’s a very fitting end to an album of B-sides and odds-and-ends (although, in all honesty, there are hundreds of bands out there who probably wish their A-side songs would sound as good as these tracks). Verdict: 8.5 (Great)

 

The Bad:

I usually find myself at a loss when trying to find something wrong with an Elbow album, and this record is no difference. Most of my little complaints come nowhere near to being actual flaws, and stem only from my personal preferences. That being said, I found the track ‘Every Bit the Little Girl’ a little too sepulchral, and too whispered. It sounds a little bit like it can’t make up its mind if it’s going to be a critique, or an outright dirge. That being said, I still like this track very much. Verdict: 7.0 (Good)

‘Lullaby’ is another track that I found to be a little too hushed, and a little too monotone. it doesn’t really get away from its single note ostinato, despite the piano’s best efforts. All in all, my main gripe with this track is that it feels too much like all of Elbow’s other ballads, and doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. Verdict: 6.5 (Okay)

One final, small annoyance that I had with this album was that the constantly tender tone of the songs sometimes make the record sound a little too uniform. This kind of reminds me of my complaint about London Grammar’s album, If You Wait. It sounds a little too homogenous, and the few tracks like ‘Long War’, and ‘McGreggor’ that break up the tone of the album are too few and far between. I realize that complaining about an album being too homogenous is somewhat like complaining that your ice cream is too smooth, however  I would have like a little more variety in terms of mood and tone.

 

The (final) Verdict – 9.0 (Amazing)

Pros:                                     

– Sounds just as good as any A-side album.

– Outstanding tracks (‘McGreggor’, and ‘Buffalo Ghosts‘).

– We see another side of Elbow’s sound (and it’s great!).

– The songs recorded live sound just good as the studio tracks.

– Great sound editing and mixing, extremely listenable.

 

Cons:

– Sounds a little too uniform.

– ‘Lullaby’ is a little dull.

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