After a 25-year career that began with a Mercury Prize shortlisting and a Brit Award nod for best new band, and continued with Mercury and Brit wins (not to mention a couple of Ivor Novellos, an NME and various other accolades), composing the theme for the BBC’s 2012 Olympic coverage and generally becoming one of the U.K.’s most beloved rock bands, it might seem logical to assume that Elbow is due for a stretch of laurel resting. Nothing could be further from the truth; the group’s last album, 2014’s stunning The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, deservedly became the band’s first U.K. number one when it debuted. Coming into Elbow’s seventh studio album, paradise rumbled slightly when Richard Jupp opted out of the band, marking the first lineup change in the group’s history. Soldiering on with session drummer Alex Reeves, the remaining foursome produced Little Fictions, quite possibly the pinnacle of its storied catalog. Frontman Guy Garvey shows that he and the band have a sense of perspective about it all when he intones “What does it prove if you die for a tune?/It’s really all disco” on the psychedelically majestic “All Disco,” a laser beam among Little Fictions’ highlights. The album’s first single, “Magnificent (She Says),” begins as a quietly propulsive pop song but swells to near epic proportions with the help of the Hallé Orchestra; “Trust The Sun” finds the band gliding along on a percolating jazz riff that suggests a marriage of late-period Police and the hushed power of Talk Talk in its prime, and “K2” pulses with a gorgeous Tropicália rhythm. Elbow’s greatest gifts have always been the ability to create a dynamic and fluid atmosphere applied to songs that are simultaneously expansive and intimate, and Little Fictions may be the best example of the band’s talents in action.
Scott H. Biram has got kind of a corny shtick on paper: the old one-man band, all grizzly and gruff, just him and a guitar singing into a collection of battered vintage microphones duct-taped together. But he more than makes up for these limitations by dint of his hard-ass love for American folk roots. This is the kind of guy as likely to yodel his way through an old country song as he is to grind his teeth on some electric blues. He swears like a motherfucker, too. Thing is, this is what the blues probably sounded like back in the day. Early recording technology sanitized American roots music, making it seem quaint today. But at the time, artists were grinding out these sweaty, dirty songs in smoky bars and dancehalls and trying like hell to make something meaningful in this fucked-up world. Biram gets that. He’s one of the few members of the new roots revival who does.
Though some things change, others stay the same. Across 22 years and multiple incarnations, Douglas McCombs (also of Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and Pullman) has remained the sole consistent member of Brokeback. Early on, the sound was focused on melodies he composed for six-string electric bass. Accompanists, recording and rhythmic approaches, and instruments have come and gone. In its current four-piece incarnation, Brokeback is a beat combo with a fairly live sound, and McCombs plays electric and baritone guitar. But if the string tone has changed, the intent to instrumentally evoke spaces and places remains. The guitars twang enough to get you thinking of Calexico or Duane Eddy, but the tunes are named for places in rural Illinois, which makes plenty of sense when you consider that flat cornfield views and desert vistas give you equally unimpeded views of the wide-open road and the empty land around it.
“Indie rock” has become such an amorphous and broad category that it’s nearly meaningless. But you could do worse than to use Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to define it: The band’s 2005 self-titled debut is a genre touchstone, one of those albums that seemed to come out of nowhere fully formed. Self-released and initially self-promoted, willfully weird but eminently accessible, the record deservedly found its audience in large part due to internet word of mouth (and blog-of-ear). Led by Philly’s Alec Ounsworth, CYHSY identified as a band but was often in large part a solo project in the studio. The initial version of CYHSY disbanded after its third album, 2012’s Hysterical, and 2014’s underrated, synth-centric Only Run was basically Ounsworth solo. For the even better guitars-forward The Tourist, Ounsworth uses the touring band he drafted for Only Run, including Spinto Band guitarist Nick Krill and Bigger Lovers/Pernice Brothers drummer (and former MAGNET contributor) Patrick Berkery. Songs such as “The Vanity Of Trying” and “Down (Is Where I Want To Be )” glory in rave-up crescendos (you can glimpse the fingerprints of Dave Fridmann, who mixed the album, on these). It’s replete with Lou Reed allusions: “It seems I’ll be your mirror” (“Unfolding Above Celibate Moon”), “Turns out you were vicious/You hit me with a flower” (“Better Off”). The Tourist is still weird—how could it not be, with Ounsworth’s bleating voice and often cryptic lyrics?—but not as willfully as moments on Hysterical or 2007’s Some Loud Thunder. It’s not a facsimile of the debut—it’s more layered and less frenetic—but it’s still applause-worthy.
Eric Matthews didn’t invent chamber pop, but he certainly set an impossibly high bar with his 1995 debut, It’s Heavy In Here, which hit with the impact of a velvet-fisted sucker punch telegraphed with hypnotic whispers. Matthews sublimated his solo career after the lukewarm response to 1997’s The Lateness Of The Hour, becoming a utility player for the Dandy Warhols, Tahiti 80 and Elliott Smith before relaunching his brand with a trio of return-to-form releases on Empyrean, including 2008’s The Imagination Stage. For his first album in nine years, Matthews brings his estimable gifts to bear on a 12-track rumination on the stunting effects of the material world on his spiritual growth. Jazzy flourishes animate “Factual Extreme,” “Dragonfly” hints at Andy Partridge’s English Settlement pastoralism, and “God Loves His Children” mirrors John Cale’s orchestral majesty. Matthews even flexes his indie-rock muscles, particularly on the forceful “Ten More Masters” and the haunting “Exactly Like Them,” which bristle with Bowie-like revelatory power. (God, he’d better not be dying.) With a few new wrinkles, Too Much World reflects and transcends the typical and sporadically consistent brilliance that Matthews has exhibited over the past two decades.