Give English post-Radiohead band Elbow one thing -- it succeeded in picking a name as unashamedly average as the music that's filled the vacuum Thom Yorke and his mates created in U.K. guitar rock when they stopped playing guitars. (What, Coldplay was already taken? Oh, right.). Asleep in the Back, the Manchester group's (also aptly titled) 2001 debut, didn't offer much to suggest that it hadn't named itself appropriately; imagine the spacy, wide-screen pop of Doves without that band's sense of melody or rhythmic momentum but with loads of limp music-geek Frippery standing in for memorable songs. Like they said: Elbow.
Consider it a possible reaction to Radiohead's recent return to six-string commotion, then, that Cast of Thousands, Elbow's second disc, pounds with so much more purpose than Asleep. Music geeks needn't worry, for the Frippery still flaps: Opener "Ribcage" takes nearly a minute to surface from a pool of starshine synth squiggles, then concludes with help from the London Community Gospel Choir; "Fugitive Motel" sports a weird coda of singer Guy Garvey's contact-miked throat ululations; guitarist Mark Potter lines "I've Got Your Number" with rehearsal-room noodling. But on "Fallen Angel" and "Snooks (Progress Report)," the band lets drummer Richard Jupp lead the charge with dark tom rolls and cool little percussive ticks, and Garvey's melodies are in bloom throughout.
Fellow travelers Starsailor (now that's showing some imagination!) similarly juice their previously droopy drone-pop on Silence Is Easy, their own second album and the follow-up to 2002's mildly successful Love Is Here. The new disc's selling point is that Wall of Sound innovator and current murder suspect Phil Spector produced two tunes, "White Dove" and the title track, both of which prove that what's easier than silence is dressing up mediocre songs in literal bells and whistles.
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Elsewhere, like Elbow, the band fares better by keeping things moving; drummer Ben Byrne drives opener "Music Was Saved" and "Shark Food" with well-shaded gusto. If his bandmates can get front man James Walsh to tone down his hammy Jeff Buckley impersonation, Starsailor might just be 2006's Travis.