Elbow - Biography



The very early 2000's witnessed a slew of earnest UK pop bands who followed in the wake of the popularity Coldplay had achieved. Harping on melancholic tones and nakedly emotional lyrics, bands like Starsailor, South, and Haven released debuts to varying degrees of success. Somewhere in that mix were Elbow, a five-piece group with a full-time organ player, a sound that was capable of tugging on the heartstrings so much that it was almost unfair (see “Newborn”), and a singer who's voice was somewhere between that of Peter Gabriel and Catherine Wheel's Rob Dickinson. Perhaps Elbow had a slight edge, though, when they released their debut, as they had been working on it for ten years.

           

The five members of Elbow (who would remain the five members of Elbow up to the present date) met at college in Bury, England, in 1990. Guitarist Mark Potter asked Guy Garvey to sing for a band that also featured Pete Turner on bass and Richard Jupp on drums. Garvey accepted and the band called themselves Mr. Soft, later changing their name to just Soft. By 1997, Mark's brother Craig Potter joined them, lending his organ talents to the group, and they changed their name to Elbow. The name comes from an episode of UK show The Singing Detective in which a character says that “elbow” is the sexiest-sounding word in the English lexicon.

 

The quintet moved south to Manchester where they started gigging tirelessly and going through many incarnations of their now-cemented sound, at one time employing far more elements of funk music. The gigs attracted the attention of Island Records, who picked them up in 1998. After recording a debut with producer Steve Osborne, Island was bought out by Universal, and the band was subsequently dropped. EMI signed them shortly after, but they were dropped again in only a couple of months' time.

 

An independent label in Manchester called Uglyman signed the band and released three of their EPs, Any Day Now, Noisebox, and Newborn. The EPs were loved by critics and even found fans in the likes of members of REM, Blur, and U2. The band capitalized on that success, signing yet another contract, this time with V2 Records. And so it was that the band's debut, Asleep in the Back, would be released in 2001, ten years after the band's inception on V2. Ben Hillier, who also has albums by Clinic, Blur and Tom McRae to his credit, produced the album and it received praise equal to that met by the EPs. It was shortlisted for the 2001 Mercury Prize and nominated for a Brit Award. The album saw its US release in early 2002 and included the bonus track “Asleep in the Back.”

 

The band again joined forces with producer Ben Hillier and returned in 2004 with Cast of Thousands (V2). The new album showcased a furthering of their experimentations with songwriting structures. It was an impressive feat that they were able to expand on their sound, since they had over ten years to write Asleep in the Back and not even one year to write Cast of Thousands. The album's name comes from the amount of people who sang along on the lyric “We still believe in love, so fuck you,” on the track “Grace Under Pressure.” The band had recorded their fans singing the line over and over at the 2002 Glastonbury Festival and listed every one of their names in the album's liner notes. Interest in the band was slowly snowballing and Cast of Thousands peaked at a modest but commendable 196 on the Billboard 200. The group toured Cuba later that year, and were filmed doing so by documentary filmmaker Irshad Ashraf. The footage was made into a short film which was later shown at festivals but never made available to fans of the band.

 

In a demonstration of their sense of humor and irony, Elbow recorded an acoustic cover of Destiny's Child's “Independent Woman” in the style of a jug band for a BBC Radio 1 session. The song was later set to an animation of kittens playing the song on a website called rathergood.com, earning the band a little extra popularity. Also in 2004, the song “Fallen Angel” was featured in the Michael Winterbottom film 9 Songs, in which the band also made an appearance.

 

Elbow followed up Cast of Thousands with 2005's more direct and accessible Leaders of the Free World (V2). For this album, the need for a producer was not seen nor acknowledged by the band members, and so they handled the production all by themselves. In his lyrics, Garvey tackled leaders like Bush and Blair on a couple of tracks, while the rest of the album contained his usual nostalgia for places and relationships. If commercial success was what the band had been striving for in this album, they unfortunately failed. Although critics gave Elbow the praise that had become consistent with their releases, sales were down, bringing about a split between the band and their V2 label in 2006.

 

Elbow signed to Fiction Records for release of their much more successful The Seldom Seen Kid (2008) which peaked on the Billboard 200 at 109. Named after their departed friend and fellow Manchester musician Bryan Glancy, this album was infused with the most lyrical and vocal emotion that Garvey had ever laid to tape, and his supporting crew were in top form as well. For the second time, they received a nomination for the prestigious and enviable Mercury Prize. And this time, they won it, beating out Radiohead and Burial. Fourteen years after their formation, Elbow are beginning to really taste the fruits of their strenuous labors. Where the likes of Starsailor, South, and Haven are now wallowing in obscure mediocrity, and even Coldplay are regarded harshly for always playing it safe, it seems that Elbow (who would have given up a long time ago if they'd wanted to play it safe) will only rise further and further away from those trappings.

Steve Earle and the Dukes
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