Sound — 8
Having been a mainstay of alternative/art rock since their 2001 debut album, "Asleep in the Back" (and having formed in 1990, changing their name to Elbow in 1997), Elbow have offered up some incredible work on "Little Fictions," their seventh studio album. Fronted by vocalist/lead songwriter Guy Garvey, along with guitarist Mark Potter, keyboardist Craig Potter, bassist Pete Turner, and session drummer Alex Reeves (replacing long-time drummer Richard Jupp who left the band before the recording sessions), Elbow have taken a fairly diverse range of influences, from Peter Gabriel-era Genesis to Radiohead and Talk Talk, and melded them into a unique style of music that's very difficult to categorize. There are elements of prog-rock on some tracks, symphonic pop on others, and even Krautrock and post-rock at times.
Opening with the aptly titled "Magnificent (She Says)," this is a track that really sets the precedent for the rest of the album, a dreamy pop/rocker with swelling synths, throbbing bass lines, and a very beautiful set of melodies, anchored by performances from The Hallé Orchestra and their choir. Guitars may be buried in the mix, but the riffs and chords played are sublime. This is only the first track, and it really gives you a good idea of what you're in for through the next 44 minutes. Electro-pop influenced drumming and keyboard playing anchors "Gentle Storm," a shoe-in for a hit single (which even has a video starring famed actor Benedict Cumberbatch) if there ever was one on this album. "Trust the Sun" also uses what sounds like looped drums with a very Radiohead-meets-Pink Floyd guitar riff and a rhythmic progression that takes it in some interesting directions, including some prog-like time signature shifts, and a lovely, though off-kilter, closing piano solo by Craig Potter.
"All Disco" is an uplifting tune that is anything but disco, using the choir (there are choral performances by both the Hallй Ancoats Community Choir and members of London Contemporary Voices on this album) along with its jangly guitar line to evoke a sound that almost reminds the listener of Sigur Rós' work. "Head for Supplies" uses a delay-drenched clean guitar part as a backdrop for more pretty melodies from Guy Carvey, whose vocals are reminiscent of Peter Gabriel. This gentle track swells in intensity before returning to the guitar part from the intro and leading into the funky "Firebrand & Angel," a track with a really catchy piano riff, and another melody that feels very Peter Gabriel-esque. The bridge in the middle of the song is a kind of proggy moment, with some interesting things happening between the guitar, pianos, and choir vocals, but it's all very subtle. I find when the band does these subtle little moments like that, where there's more happening than the lack of intensity of the track would lead you to believe, that they really succeed as a group.
"K2" utilizes the Motorik beat popularized by Krautrock bands like Can, NEU!, and Kraftwerk in a pop/rock context, and again, is a rather catchy track that has more going on than what it seems on the surface. I rather enjoy the echoed vocals, and the note choices Guy uses are great. The subtle guitar lead Mark Potter plays in the chorus (which is actually one clean guitar and a slide guitar together) is another great little part. "Montparnasse" is a relatively short piece featuring only Guy's vocals, Craig's piano playing, and Mark's gentle guitar strumming. It's a bit of a subtle, short piece kind of serving as an intro to the album's epic-length title track, which opens with some deceptively dark and proggy piano chords, before going into a more uplifting-sounding major key main verse.
"Little Fictions" is sprawling and evolving, with bits that change and grow with the track, but hardly in a prog-rock sense, it almost sounds like Peter Gabriel singing over a track by a band like God Is An Astronaut. At about five and a half minutes into the song, we get a brief guitar part with feedback that almost sounds a bit like a solo, leading into a building climax that uses strings in a rather unique way for the final two minutes of the song, being more like a pulsating backdrop of noise rather than an orchestra playing something pretty. It's a bit of a repetitive track, but it never really gets boring. Finally, we get to the track "Kindling", which is another very pretty-sounding track, with a persistently looped percussion track and more gentle guitar playing and big string arrangements before ending on studio chatter.
There's very little to the playing on this album that's meant to wow the listener, no dazzling displays of technique, but the songwriting is amazing and does a wonderful job of carrying the album. The production is also great, which is something I find a little surprising for any band that utilizes an orchestra or choir. The orchestral and choral arrangements never get so out of hand that they become cheesy or grating, and sometimes, as on the title track, the band uses this element in a much more unique manner than most rock bands with an orchestra do. There's a lot of that clean, reverb-drenched sound on the album, but unlike a lot of albums in a similar vein, it never feels like it's drowning in it. There's a lot of headroom in the mix, too, which is nice for the ears.
Lyrics — 9
With the band's previous album, "The Take Off and Landing of Everything," dealing mainly with the turbulent life changes within the band, particularly Guy Garvey's split with his girlfriend, it's almost kind of refreshing to see the pessimism turn into something a bit more positive on this record. Opening track "Magnificent (She Says)" deals with Guy's new relationship and bringing a new life into this world: "This is where it all began/To light your mother's cigarette/And I got to touch her hand/And my heart, there defrosting in a gaze/Wasn't built to beat that way/Suddenly I understand." I don't normally find love-themed lyrics to be all that great, but I particularly liked this passage from the opening track. The themes of finding new love continue throughout the album, though there are some diversions from that lyrical theme.
In "All Disco," vocalist/songwriter Guy Garvey recalls an interview with a member of the Pixies, where they mention that "You have punk rock, you have rock, you have blues, you have soul - it's all disco," an interesting attitude to have, but it does kind of serve as a reminder not to get carried away in our various fandoms: "Come to the river sun/Let the obsession go/What does it prove if you die for a tune/It's really all disco." The warmth of the emotional aspect of the lyrics really gets wrapped up well with the last verse on the album, in the song "Kindling": "The silence and the waiting and the rush of all aboard/Fifty souls to a carriage I'm trying hard to be ignored/Then my telephone shakes into life and I see your name/And the wheat fields explode into gold either side of the train."
There's a lot to like about the lyrics on this album, and Guy Garvey's voice is just another clincher to seal the deal, with a style very reminiscent of Peter Gabriel, though perhaps not the young Gabriel of "Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" vintage, but a more mature, recent Gabriel. His voice lends a lot of warmth to the already intimate, poetic and personal subject matter.
Overall Impression — 8
It's rare that I ever find myself enjoying alt-rock or indie-rock, usually these sort of introverted styles of music leave me feeling cold and unaffected. However, "Little Fictions" has such a huge amount of warmth, and even though it wears some of its influences on its sleeve, it's a unique sounding record that manages to cross the lines from art/prog-rock to pop and even a bit of post-rock. I was quite surprised to find myself enjoying this record, and beyond that, it's a record that I've found myself enjoying more with each passing listen. If you're not convinced on the first listen, I'd give it another chance, because it's a bit of a grower. With great songwriting, excellent lyrics, and a sometimes unique use of orchestral and choral textures, this is an album that defied my own expectations of the genre, and I'd definitely give this album a recommendation to check out.