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Elbow: Flying Dream 1
by George Graham
(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/19/2022)
The internationalism of the music scene going, back to the British Invasion of the 1960s, has meant that pop groups have often enjoyed commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously. But some groups, for some reason or another, have enjoyed great success on one side of the pond, and are relatively obscure on the other side. This is something I observed the last time I reviewed an album by the long-running, top-selling British band Elbow, who have released their ninth album called Flying Dream 1. Here in the US, however, Elbow remains a bit of a cult group, which to me is both hard to understand on the basis of artistic merit, and perhaps understandable because of that, with their laid back, but multifaceted often melancholy sound. They have also experimented with different approaches over the years.
Elbow was co-founded by lead vocalist and songwriter Guy Garvey and guitarist Mark Potter, in 1990, while they were both attending college in the town of Bury, near Manchester, England. They eventually added Mark Potter’s brother Craig on keyboards and drummer Richard Jupp, who had been in a band with Mark Potter. After a couple of name changes, they settled on calling their band Elbow, and released a couple of EPs, before issuing their first full album in 2001. They began attracting attention, and were picked up by the BBC, and became affiliated with a number of British artists, including Peter Gabriel, who covered one of Elbow’s songs on his Scratch My Back album of covers he did. They were also commissioned to create music for the BBC’s coverage of the 2012 Olympics. We featured their 2017 album, Little Fictions on this review series, and when it came out in their home country, it entered at Number One on the British charts. By then, drummer Richard Jupp had left and the group were experimenting with loops for percussion, further diversifying their sound.
Like so much else, the COVID pandemic affected the band. For their new album, the members composed separately and exchanged files, but actually did get together physically to record in a theater in Manchester, where their performances were recorded for video. If anything, the new album features a more contemplative, melancholy sound, sometimes without drums. It can sound like an atmospheric singer-songwriter record, centered on the distinctive vocals of Guy Garvey. The band cites influence from artists like the Blue Nile, Van Morrison, John Martyn and Kate Bush, saying that they have been drawn to stylistically coherent full albums, rather than individual songs. Elbow’s Flying Dreams 1 follows that pattern with the sound assuming the quiet textures of their previous albums, perhaps even more so. Elbow did not get a full-time replacement for drummer Richard Jupp, though they did enlist session drummer Alex Reeves. But often the music is performed without drums. Lyrically, the album features the semi-sad sounding love-songs that the group has been known for, along with Guy Garvey’s poetic, sometimes impressionistic verses.
Opening is the title track Flying Dream, which epitomizes the sound of the album, with its dreamy, sort of brooding, but melodic sound. <<>>
With a slightly more rock-oriented direction is After the Eclipse which features a collection of backing vocalists, while the refrain incants “Come out into the storm.” <<>>
One of the more interesting tracks is Is It A Bird which could be about some kind of unidentified flying object, while the music implies the mystery of the phenomenon of the lyrics. <<>>
One of the straight out love songs is Six Words which are “I’m falling in love with you”. The atmospheric sound features a piano at the center of the song’s sonic texture. <<>>
Another track that is interesting and distinctive for its instrumental arrangement and atmospheric complexion is Come On Blue. <<>>
The Only Road is, as you might suspect, a song about traveling, with the journey an allegory for a relationship. The arrangement has a bit of a country tinge with the almost twangy guitars. <<>>
In 2008, Elbow released an album called The Seldom Seen Kid which did not have a song by that name. The new album does include a tune called The Seldom Seen Kid, another of the standouts, with some ethereal-sounding woodwind instruments providing another intriguing ingredient to the sonic amalgam. <<>>
The album ends with What Am I Without You, a love song that is the builds to the biggest crescendo on this otherwise contemplative sounding album, but still maintains the slightly lugubrious sound that characterizes this album. <<>>
The British band Elbow has been going for more than 30 years now, creating a distinctive blend of art rock sophistication with a kind of laid-back, contemplative aura, especially on their new album Flying Dream 1. Guy Garvey’s distinctive, somewhat plaintive vocals are at the center of the sound, while the band paints a kind of atmospheric backdrop that can be a kind of musical reverie. The album was also designed more to be a unit, rather than a random collection of songs, and it’s appreciated best as a whole.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B Plus. The mix on the album has everything in the right place, but their goal of giving the album a somewhat ethereal quality makes the overall sound a bit murky at times. Dynamic range, the difference between the loud and the soft, is also rather disappointing.
Elbow has enjoyed commercial success in the UK with a sound that is apart from most rock on either side of the Atlantic. Maybe their new album will give them a bit more visibility in the US, with something of a resurgence of mellow music. But in any case, Elbow proves its durability and artistic merit on their new album.
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