When Elbow released their debut Asleep in the back in 2001, I put them in the same category as fellow Mancurians Doves, who had released their debut Lost souls a year earlier -- dark, mellow and textured indie music with subtle elements of progressive music thrown in. In a comparison that sounds incredibly odd with the benefit of hindsight, they were even a bit like Coldplay with a slightly more experimental edge.
At the time, I never thought they were quite as good as either of those bands, who both released follow-ups (The last broadcast and A rush of blood to the head) that were much more impressive albums than both Asleep in the back and its successor Cast of thousands. Elbow looked like a band who were destined to fade into obscurity.
After one more solid but not world-changing album (Leaders of the free world), it looked like Elbow were quite content to stick to their formula. This was a pity, because while they had definitely demonstrated talent on individual tracks (Red, Powder blue, Fugitive motel), they had yet to release a back-to-front kick-ass album. The seldom-seen kid would luckily change all of that.
This was the album which proved to me that Elbow were truly one of the best bands of our time. Kicking off with the wonderfully dynamic Starlings (which shows how amazing music can sound when it isn't brick-walled), Guy Garvey and his band of merry-men take us on a 55 minute journey through a wide variety of sounds, genres and textures.
From the kick-ass rocker Grounds for divorce (with an equally impressive film clip), to the epic balladry of Tower crane driver and Some riot, to the fun caper of The fix (a duet with Richard Hawley) -- this is their most eclectic, accomplished and consistent album to date.
Elbow may have been heading down a stylistic cul-de-sac before this album, but here they proved they could play in the big league without selling out or sacrificing any of their individuality. If only Guy Garvey could have had a few quiet words with Chris Martin circa-2003.
There's not many bands I can say this about, but I'm truly excited to hear what Elbow surprise us with next.
While many artists who have been around for this long are quite happy to rest on their laurels, Tom Waits is an artist who not only re-invents himself between albums, but between songs on the same album. He is a enigmatic genius who releases constantly challenging music that rewards patience and repeated listening.
Most of the songs on Alice date back to the early 90s -- Tom had written them for the play Alice, which was based on the forbidden love between Alice in Wonderland writer Lewis Carroll and young girl Alice Liddell (who Lewis had written Alice in Wonderland for). For whatever reason, Tom decided not to release an album with the songs until 2002 -- a year in which he also released another LP, Blood money.
Unlike Blood money (a dark and harsh album, summed up by both its eerie album cover and its song titles like Misery is the river of the world), Alice is a subdued, mourning album which consists mainly of funereal ballads injected with the standard Tom Waits quirk.
The stunning opening title track sets the scene perfectly with its wonderful poetic lyrics: "To go skating on your name, and by tracing it twice, I fell through the ice of Alice". Tom throws in a few curve balls to keep the listener on their feet, with the quirky Everything you can think and oddball carnival music of Kommuienezuspadt (which sounds like it's in German, but is apparently complete gibberish).
Elsewhere, we have a depressing ballad about a man who was born with the face of a woman on the back of his head (Poor Edward), a Louis Armstrong style jazz number about a man born without a body (Table Top Joe) and a Shakespeare-esque tragedy about a bird and a whale who fall in love, but realise that it will never work because the bird "cannot live in the ocean" and the whale "[can never] live in the sky" (Fish and bird). Who else writes songs like this but Tom Waits?
There's no denying that this stuff is an acquired taste, but he is one of the true musical geniuses of our time. Put aside some time and effort and acquaint yourself with this true visionary of American music. It could go one of two ways -- you will continue to find his music un-listenable, or you will need to hear everything he has ever released. There is no in between.
The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), Exile on Main Street and Blonde on Blonde as a double album which also represented a creative career peak. Okay, so it's not quite as great as those albums, but what is?
Running for just over 1.5 hours and 33 tracks, this album is home to some of the most personal songs that Mark E. Everett (E) has ever written (except for most of the stuff on the mourning Electro-shock blues). These 33 tracks were recorded over an 8 year period from 1998 to 2004, with various Eels line-ups, backing musicians and guest musicians (including Peter Buck and Tom Waits).
Considering the long recording period, it holds together remarkably well, flowing together like an autobiography of E's life (beginning with the life-affirming From which I came / A magic world, and ending with the poignant Things the grandchildren should know). Interspersed throughout the album are instrumental reprises of the title -- Theme from Blinking lights, Blinking lights (for me), Blinking lights (for you) and even a cheeky nod to Tom Waits on Bride of theme from Blinking Lights. These instrumentals, while simple, are very effective at maintaining a sense of continuity on the otherwise diverse record.
Other than his standard mope-indie-folk fare, E and his musicians try their hand at a few other genres including country (Railroad man, Ugly love), epic balladry (Dust of ages), new-wave dance (Going fetal) and life-affirming pop (Hey man (now you're really living)).
But overall, it's the lush and beautifully dark songs which are the Eels trademark, and this album has them in spades: Theme for a pretty girl, Checkout blues, If you see Natalie, The stars shine in the sky tonight and Things the grandchildren should know are some of the most emotional and touching songs in their oeuvre.
This album is a remarkably consistent, eclectic and personal work of art from one of the most underrated musicians of the last 15 years.
Even though Blur haven't "officially" broken up yet, it's getting more and more likely that this 2003 release will become their swansong. If this is the case, it's a great way to end their career -- a wonderful refinement of the left-field art-rock from their previous two albums (Blur from 1997, 13 from 1999) where they toned down some of the arty pretensions in favour of actual songs. If I was to make an analogy to another band who constantly re-invent themselves (Radiohead) -- if Blur was their Hail To The Thief, and 13 was their Kid A/Amnesiac, Think Tank was their In Rainbows (chronology notwithstanding).
Think Tank opens with the wonderfully atmospheric Ambulance, where frontman Damon Albarn confidently croons "I ain't got nothing to be scared of". By this stage, he certainly didn't have to be scared of any competition with former rivals Liam and Noel Gallagher (of Oasis); remember lads, if you choose to be a band who remains stagnant, you have to make that the horse you're flogging isn't dead. Luckily Blur had realised that this Britpop thing could only be stretched so far, and the proof is in the pudding of their late-career albums.
The songs on Think Tank find the perfect balance between melody (Out of time, Good song, Sweet song) and trip-hop beats (On the way to the club, Brothers and sisters, Gene by gene). There are a even a few oddities thrown in for good measure (We've got a file on you, Moroccan peoples revolutionary bowls club, Jets).
There's a few longer mood pieces which are similar to some of the mellower moments on 13 (the aforementioned Ambulance, Caravan), but where the songs on 13 were arty for art's sake, these songs seem to fit in with the big picture of the album as a whole. The only song which doesn't work is the grating Fat Boy Slim collaboration Crazy Beat, which to my cynical mind was the token single added on request of the record company.
The album ends with the wonderful Battery in your leg, the only song with the presence of original guitarist Graham Coxon, who had left the band in 2002 after a dispute. His guitar line adds a chilling beauty to the song's lyrics ("This is a ballad for the good times, another dignity we held"). One can't help but interpret these lyrics (and Coxon's presence) as an epitaph for one of the most restlessly inventive bands of their era.
This was Ben Folds' first solo album after the break up of his former band, Ben Folds Five, in 2000. It's not a radical departure in sound for fans of the previous band -- piano based pop with very catchy melodies and a touch of trademark lyrical and vocal quirk thrown in for good measure. Ben Folds has often been referred to as an indie Elton John, and I think this is a pretty fair comparison.
I have always considered the optimum album length (in number of tracks and duration) to be 12 tracks running for 45 minutes. 12 tracks works well because it allows you to divide the album in half, three or four quite easily; years of research have also led me to believe that 45 minutes is the happy medium between feeling ripped off and unsatisfied (which short albums give you) and an album being too long to comfortably hear in a single sitting.
This 12-track album runs for about 48 minutes which makes it pretty close to perfect for me. The icing on the cake is that, unlike some of his later efforts, there isn't a bad song in the bunch -- every song is a remarkable composition of catchy melody, tight performance and deep, personal lyrics. Every song is a highlight, from the upbeat and hook-laden Annie waits, the toe-tapping Zak and Sara, the poignant character study of Fred Jones Part 2, the classical-influenced arpeggios of The ascent of Stan and the suicide lament of Losing Lisa.
When I first heard the title track, I considered it a cheap throwaway and a transparent attempt at commercial success. It was only after a few closer listens to the lyrics that I realised it was an ironic satire against middle-class white bands like Limp Bizkit who pretend that they have it harder than they do. I feel silly for mis-interpreting this song, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one. File it next to Born in the USA and Every breath you take as songs which are bound to be misinterpreted by silly people like me.
Closing track The luckiest is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard -- a touching, heartfelt love song that will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who is in love, or has been in love. It's one of the most direct songs that Ben Folds has ever penned, stripping away the layers of cynicism that he often coats his songs in, exposing the vulnerability and intense feelings one feels in any deep relationship. It may just be the best song he has ever written.