elbow as we know them formed in 1997, although the band’s roots can be traced back to 1990 when a 16 year-old Guy Garvey formed a seemingly typical sixth form band with some friends. Seven years, two name changes and one successful run in a local battle of the bands later, elbow signed to Island Records and entered the studio for the first time, under the supervision of producer Steve Osbourne, to record an album that never came to be, after the band were dropped from their label following Island’s sell out to the Universal Music Group. Six of the tracks recorded for this album would land on their debut with V2 Records, 2001’s Asleep in the Back, an album that established many of the salient musical themes that have recurred on their subsequent material. Garvey’s smooth and polished vocals, the band’s decadent use of a wide array of instrumentation, and an approach to songwriting that seemed to be destined for the headlining slot on the main stage at festivals have come together on the group’s material to refine an unequivocally unique presence in the popular rock music of today. Despite the band having tailored their evidently fruitful formula for mainstream musical success, it wouldn’t be until the release of elbow’s fourth studio album in 2007, The Seldom Seen Kid, and its megahits Grounds for Divorce and One Day Like This, that the group would be launched into the stardom that has since made them a household name in art rock. Nonetheless, in spite of their success, elbow have stayed true to their unique sound, with little evidence of their heightened commercial acclaim pressuring the band to alter their sound or image. As expected, this trend carries onto their latest studio effort, Little Fictions, and is, in fact, arguably slightly exacerbated. Much of elbow’s individual sound has been crafted around their incorporation of elaborate instrumentation into their pieces, so the collaborative efforts with Mancunian symphony orchestra The Hallé that appear on this record feel like somewhat of a natural progression for the group. In certain regards, some of the material on Little Fictions feels like a breath of fresh air for elbow, but their tried and tested formula is still as present as ever.
Typically, elbow have saved their hit singles to be featured a few songs into their albums’ tracklisting, but Magnificent (She Says), the lead single from Little Fictions, is up first here. Whilst an interesting decision in some regards, it certainly sees a strong start to the record with its classy yet anthemic atmosphere. Perhaps one of the most well-refined songs of elbow’s career, it’s easy to imagine muddy festival-goers chanting along to this chorus in time with Garvey’s finger-points. Musically, this track is very well-crafted, making use of the indulgent instrumentation at the band’s disposal in moderation, as to allow for this composition to gradually blossom until the grandiose and beautiful ending. The steady drum groove, accompanied with some lovely fluttering bass lines and simple parts from the guitar and keys provide a great foundation for the piece, allowing Garvey to successfully convey his gentle but powerful vocal melodies. String sections are commonplace on elbow songs, but here, they are used to the best effect possible. They first enter during the pre-chorus with a subtle sense of urgency and this vibe carries over into the chorus, where it is contrasted to great effect with Garvey’s beautiful swooping vocal line. At the very backend of this cut, the strings step up to the forefront of the mix and provide a delicate and charming melody that ends this epic of a song on a high note. Indeed, Magnificent (She Says) really stands out as a highlight not just on this album, but as one of the better songs elbow have ever written, with a masterful amount of musical prowess displayed in virtually all of this track’s details.
Gentle Storm sees some interesting meeting of worlds, with a syncopated and almost danceable rhythm section laying down the song’s foundation as Garvey’s usual smooth vocals bellow over the top accompanied by some sparse piano chords. Such an interesting marrying of different musical stylings certainly creates a fresh-sounding track for the group and this song also stands out in the tracklisting as a result of its interesting concept. Whilst the idea behind the song is executed very well, the minimal progression leaves it feeling somewhat underwritten, as if it has evolved little from its initial conception. Nevertheless, as one of the shorter songs on Little Fictions, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, especially given that the hypnotic drumbeat sees the song breeze by rather quickly. It also feels by no means wasted in the tracklisting given its distinctive and unique flavour that alludes to a slightly adjusted sound for elbow. Trust the Sun continues the trend of rhythmic ostinatos with a very soft drum pattern repeating throughout this song’s entirety as the minimal timbre develops over the top. Whilst Garvey’s punctuated vocal lines and their accompanying piano chords are rather nice, as are some of the other subtle instrumental embellishments throughout the track, this piece feels somewhat bloated in length, with a very slow development that doesn’t really see any significant pay-off. It certainly doesn’t capture the listener as effectively as the previous two tracks, rather I worry that this song could slip into the background for some people given its limited progression.
Once the singles are all out of the way quite early on in the tracklisting, it feels like much of the rest of the record sees elbow cover very familiar ground. A handful of these cuts lack much of a definitive musical development that the band haven’t already explored on previous material, or even earlier on in the tracklisting. Songs like Head for Supplies, K2 and Kindling, whilst all perfectly pleasant pieces, resort to many elbow staples with regards to composing and structuring songs that the listener is already very familiar with at this point in the record. Moreover, they seldom advance these ideas in an interesting enough way as to make these songs feel more pertinent to the advancement of this album’s sound. This being said, there are plenty of nice moments across these songs, such as the angelic vocals that accompany Garvey on the backend of Head for Supplies and the swirling guitars around the middle of Firebrand & Angel. Ultimately, there are no moments on Little Fictions that aren’t nice to listen to whilst the album is on, however the moments that evoke a clear sense of replay value towards the backend of the album are somewhat limited.
The better cuts on Little Fictions display that elbow can work within their pre-established paradigm whilst still sounding fresh and tweaking their sound enough as to make for songs that stand out as being pertinent to their development as a band. Nonetheless, much of this album feels slightly insular, in that the group seem to be restating ideas conveyed either earlier on in their career or earlier on in the record. The first handful of tracks on here alluded to a slightly different direction for elbow, albeit a slightly hesitant one, but as the album progressed, things gradually started to fit into the mould that one would expect from an elbow album at this point. All in all, this is a perfectly good album with some fantastic highlights, but the overall message conveyed is somewhat wanting, leaving me questioning where the band will seek to go from here. Hopefully, as the better tracks demonstrate they can do, the group will pursue some more ambitious and bold endeavours. Until then, however, only a limited amount of this album will sate my desire for an ever so slightly reformed elbow.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10