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CD Reviews: Review of Leaders of the Free World by Elbow
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Click here to buy yourself a copy from Amazon.com Elbow: Leaders of The Free World (V2  2005)

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Manchester can rightly claim to London in terms of its impact on the UK musical landscape. There is, however, an important difference between the two cities; whereas the capital's scale has tended in recent years to prevent the emergence of a characteristic 'London' sound, the musical output of the former city has proudly borne a certain 'Manc-ness' in wave after wave of bands. The musical picture conjured up by 'Manc-ness' is Manchester itself, a city personified by a certain urban and urbane rhythm, human warmth, epic melancholy, and a dour appearance masking a dry sense of humor. The current rich crop of bands, led by Doves, Badly Drawn Boy, I Am Kloot and Elbow, continue to mine this vein very effectively.

Arguably the most “mainstream” of the bunch, Elbow's winning formula is based on a prog-lite, keyboard-rich sound, and strongly melodic, well produced songs, perfectly apt settings for the extraordinarily emotive voice of singer/lyricist Guy Garvey. The band's strong 2001 debut, Asleep in the Back, established a template followed in the subsequent releases Cast of Thousands (2003) and this year's Leaders of the Free World. It has to be said though, that the most significant change has been a smoothing out of the quirkier edges in favor of fairly pedestrian, mid-tempo “rockers.” The highlights have typically been the trademark, epic slower songs. It's on these latter, more melodic songs that the latest record comes alive, and Garvey's wonderful voice and evocative lyrics are given the space they merit.

Album opener "Station Approach" gets off to a promising start with a soulful, plaintive tune, but it is sadly never effectively developed, the song instead opting for a repetitive, grandiose finale. The Doves-like "Stops" grabs the attention again, building on a loping beat, languid vocals and a simply strummed acoustic guitar verse, leading into a chorus very reminiscent of "Newborn," from their debut album. "An Imagined Affair" and "Everthere" are similarly downbeat, attractive songs, building on characteristic Mancunian weather imagery. Of the rockier songs, the title track and "Mexican Standoff" stand out, marrying less predictable rhythms to strong melodies and confident vocals.

Leaders of the Free World is by no means a bad album; the strong songs are very strong, and many artists would be happy to produce music of that caliber, but it disappoints in that it shows no real development from Cast of Thousands. For a band capable of quirky and original arrangements, and blessed with Garvey's distinctive vocal presence, one wonders what an Elbow prepared to take more risks would be capable of. The hope is that the next record will inform us.

~R. Sterling





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