ELBOW Asleep In The Back (V2)

Already lined up by the music press as the band most likely to receive the "This Year's Shack" award, Mancunians Elbow have apparently had much of "Asleep In The Back" in the can for some time, its release thwarted by record company troubles before the band found sympathetic ears at Richard Branson's V2. Touted as the saviours of the New Seriousness, and on the receiving end of favourable comparisons with Joy Division, Doves, Talk Talk and The Blue Nile even, I'm afraid to say that much of "Asleep In The Back" is a disappointment. Most of the dozen tracks arrive mired in the same oppressive, droning guitar and synth backgrounds, topped off with monotonic, near-whispered vocals. It's as bleak as the cover photographs of abandoned buildings, a joyless experience dragged further down by the absence of any real melody or arresting lyrical ideas to latch on to.

There are brief moments of respite, though. Opener "Any Day Now" is a lopsided but elegant shuffle that provides at least some grounds for optimism. "Newborn" builds into the kind of quietly surging, majestic patchwork that Talk Talk specialised in during their criminally underrated final two albums. Closing track "Scattered Black And Whites" is close to revelation: an almost hummable melody, empathic lyrics about childhood reminiscences, it goes some way to at least suggesting why Elbow have attracted such favourable press cuttings. Had the entire album offered as much invention "Asleep In The Back" would have justified the acclaim heaped upon it: as it is, Elbow still have the potential to make a marvellous album some day; unfortunately this isn't it.

ELBOW Newborn (V2)

Although I found their debut album an unexpectedly gruelling listen, the single release of "Newborn" is an entirely different matter altogether. Maybe they're a band that are more satisfying in small doses; whatever, the music smeared across The Man's usual chart-chasing proliferation of formats (in this case a 12" and two CDs) rates as far pleasanter than I remember "Asleep In The Back" being. The crowning achievement here, naturally, is the main feature. A suicidal single choice, due both to its seven-and-a-half minute duration and the fact that gentle, semi-acoustic ballads that mutate into the kind of swirling, Hammond-soaked, organic psychedelia that Talk Talk used to specialise in aren't really anybody's short sharp flavour-of-the-month shock, it nevertheless recasts itself as one of the finest short-form releases of the year. The supporting cast includes a smattering of remixes, one by The Black Dog, and a handful of new songs that sound finer than their lowly b-side status might suggest.