Artist: Guy Garvey
Album: Courting the Squall
In Brief: At times it may as well just be a new Elbow record, but since Elbow paints a little bit outside of their previously established lines with every album, I don’t consider it to be a bad thing for their lead singer to do some more of that on his own. The combination of loud, brash, up-tempo numbers and velvety ballads makes the flow a bit choppier than it would be on an Elbow record, but there’s a lot of strength in the diversity as well.
When the lead singer of an established band releases a solo project on the side, the band’s existing fanbase can often be difficult to please. If the music is too different from what they were used to, they can be slow to accept this new side of the singer’s personality and there will generally be a lot of hand-wringing over what this means for the future of the band. But if it’s too similar to that singer’s work with the band, a lot of folks will ask, “Why bother?” The actual reasons may be complex – perhaps the singer wanted to cut another record when the rest of the band wasn’t ready, or everyone just couldn’t get their schedules lined up, or perhaps he’d been quietly working on those songs as a hobby in his downtime from the band, or perhaps he just wanted to stretch his wings and work with some different people even though he still held his bandmates in high esteem. I usually welcome the chance to see what such a singer can do on his own in less familiar territory, but then again, if I’m getting more of the same and “the same” is something I’ve always really enjoyed, it’s hard to complain about that.
Elbow‘s lead singer Guy Garvey, a man whose deep, rich, croon I’ve come to appreciate just as much as his skilled songwriting over the years, definitely falls into the latter camp with his solo debut, Courting the Squall. I’m thrilled to get a new set of ten songs from him only a year and a half out from Elbow’s The Take Off and Landing of Everything, since their typical gap between albums tends to be about three years. Given that one of Elbow’s biggest strength is its immaculate rhythm section, and they’ve already downplayed it quite a bit on their last few albums, I would have expected a collection of nothing but slow-burning ballads from Guy as a solo act. And there certainly are a few of those – they occupy roughly half the record, I’d say. But I’m quite pleasantly surprised at how brash, drunken, and even a bit jazzy the remaining tracks are. Horn sections and baroque instrumentation abound, and it’s not like we haven’t heard this stuff on Elbow records before, but it’s like all of it is pushed a bit more to the extreme, whether it’s toward the soft or loud end of the scale.
At times, the transitions from one style of song to the other can be a bit abrupt, making Courting the Squall feel more like a compilation of interesting material than a proper album. But then I think back to tracks like “Fly Boy Blue”, “Neat Little Rows” or even “Snooks” from Elbow’s discography, and I remember that there’s always been something a bit jarring in there somewhere. Garvey’s typical “I’m a dreamy-eyed sad sack, and I don’t deserve you, but I will worship at your feet with a wine glass in my hand nonetheless”-type lyrics abound, and even at this record’s most swaggering moments, I’m tempted to throw around the word “classy” like it’s going out of style, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. The only real weakness here, aside from the lack of stylistic cohesion, is that a few of the slower songs sound to me like they needed to either bring in some more inventive percussion, or just drop the drums entirely. When the focus is more on songwriting talent, diverse instrumentation, and that hauntingly lovely Peter Gabriel-esque croon, this is really a minor complaint. Squall is a good start to what I hope is a fruitful second career for a man who’s already doing exceedingly well at his first one.
1. Angela’s Eyes
Elbow’s done some loud and abrasive stuff on rare occasion, but I don’t know if they’ve ever had as much of a blast recording a song as Garvey clearly did here. From the dusty thump of an old bass guitar, to the clattering drums, to the deliberately, obnoxiously loud synth solo that he must have known he’d never get away with on an Elbow track, this song is designed to grab your attention and leave a smile on your face. A lot of The Take Off and Landing of Everything was about getting over a long-term relationship that went belly-up, and it sounds like he’s back in the saddle here, having met a woman who pretty much restored his faith in faith itself. He takes brief shots at superstition and organized religion and even the concept of “faith in humanity” here as he explains how he’s become jaded about all these things (“I’ve been looking for my truth since God was a boy”, as he puts it, and then things get more pointed later as he remarks “No sign from a zodiac… and I want my f*ckin’ money back.”) Now he believes wholeheartedly in the love of a good, strong woman. I love how this one so blatantly pulls together sounds from different eras – you’ve got the drums and bass making it feel like something from an especially rowdy jazz club, then you’ve got the little stabs of guitar giving it a bit of a garage rock feel, and then there’s that synth. I’ve griped a lot about songs where synth is thrown into an otherwise organic mix and it doesn’t seem to belong, but it’s the sheer unruliness of it that makes it work so well.
2. Courting the Squall
After that exhilarating intro, it feels premature to transition to the downbeat drums and overall pensive mood of the title track, but let’s be honest – If I had a nickel for every time I complained about a ballad being track two on an album that had a larger-than-life opening number, I’d have like, oh I don’t know, about $13.50. Regardless of where this track lies on the album, I enjoy it for what it is, which is a sparse but beautifully performed meditation on a peaceful winter scene in the British countryside. “In the hills, it’s an overcoat colder” might be one of his all-time best opening lines. I’m amused at the notion of an overcoat being a unit of temperature measurement, and the baffling yet quotable poetry only continues from there. He sings of a lover holed up in his cabin with him “hovering worriedly over your eggs, and I’m pondering trees”, which in addition to being a nice little callback to “Dear Friends” (a highly underrated personal favorite of mine from Build a Rocket Boys!), it also speaks volumes about the pragmatist/idealist dynamic that seems to be going on in that relationship. Elsewhere he brings out the swooning self-deprecation: “I’m a son of a saint and a leader of men/And I’m neither of them, but I’m yours.” There’s a harp gently being plucked throughout most of the song, adding to that tranquil, wintry feel, and I love it all except for the drums and bass. Normally I’m a big fan of what a rhythm section can do in an otherwise restrained song like this, but here, the percussion just feels uninventive and tedious, and it adds a sense of stiffness to what should be a graceful, gently flowing, meditative sort of song. Dropping the percussion altogether and giving the rest of the instrumentation more room to ebb and flow might have helped this one to feel a bit less mechanical. It’s not often that you’ll hear me suggest such a thing.
3. Harder Edges
Now this here is MAH JAM. Sorry, it probably made me sound really stupid to say it like that, but there’s just an animal instinct that takes over as this song’s irresistible drum groove kicks in. I don’t even really know what this one’s about – something about missing the more aggressive and abrasive nature of a woman he once loved who he’s hoping won’t look him up to see how he’s doing these days (he sure repeats “Don’t run the numbers” an awful lot, whatever the hell that means). I’m not even sure that I really need to know, because this song is such a heavenly mixture of the loud and soft sides of Garvey’s style that I’m almost bummed it didn’t get the honor of being the title track. Due to how long the drums, bass, and piano hint at launching in to a full-on breakdown and yet seem to delay it, you might think at first that this track is all talk and no action for the first few minutes, especially when its bridge starts to get a bit sleepy. That’s where the horns come in, though, and there’s this wistful tone to them that once again, of all the Elbow songs that could possibly come to mind, reminds me of “Dear Friends”. Not that you’d confuse any other aspect of the song with that one, because when the payoff finally comes, it’s all about the catchy chorus and the horn blasts and everybody having a good time. If you were to walk by my cubicle while I was in the office listening to this one, you’d be guaranteed to witness some extremely dorky involuntary movement on my part.
Now this song would be classic Elbow if it actually was Elbow. I’d have just assumed they had some new stuff out or that this was a long lost track that somehow never made an album of theirs, if I had heard it out of context. And I don’t mean that to belittle any of the other members of Elbow who didn’t play on this track, or any of the musicians who did collaborate with Garvey here. There’s just something about its smooth, dreamy sense of escapism that tells me if you like Elbow, this’ll be right up your alley. And I mean that in the best possible way. We’re talking top shelf material, up there with all-time favorites of mine like “Mirrorball”, “The Stops”, and “Powder Blue”. (And yeah, “Dear Friends” too. I promise I’ll stop name-dropping that song now.) This ode to absconding to somewhere far away with a special someone “to end this less than perfect year” has just about everything I’d fall for in an Elbow track – a steady rhythm and fluid bass line that very slowly builds to an understated but lovely crescendo, rich background vocals, sparse but memorable guitar and piano parts, and lyrics that seem to open the floodgates and let an unstoppable cascade of emotions flow out as the words just keep on coming. This was exactly the kind of thing I needed to calm my nerves at the tail end of an incredibly stressful 2015, and it’s for that reason that I made it the closing track on the very last “personal soundtrack” mix that I made for myself that year. I’m almost bummed that it wasn’t saved for the closing slot on this album, but I guess having it in the front half means more listeners will notice it.
I kind of glossed over this song for a while. That may have been my loss. It may have just been that due to the combination of piano and harp, and another sort of plodding drum beat that doesn’t seem to really fit the mood, it felt like another “Courting the Squall”, but I went back to discover some poetry in that track that I hadn’t originally noticed, and the same is true here. This might be some of Garvey’s most astounding wordplay, actually – right in the first verse, he pulls me in with a description of a sky that’s “Gold as a gong and robin’s egg blue”, and in the second verse he expresses admiration for a woman who is unafraid to speak her mind: “You were cursing the folly of a 3 dollar brolly/In your after work makeup and still at work shoes.” These brief little details stoke the fires of my imagination, bringing to mind a host of different character traits, and I figure the ability to imply that much in the space of a few otherwise mundane details is the mark of an incredibly strong songwriter. While I’m not in love with the overall rhythm or pacing of this song – something about it seems to be reaching for aching beauty but stumbling over itself in its attempt to get there – I am definitely enraptured by the generous dulcimer solo that shows up midway through the song and quite nearly steals the spotlight.
Tom Waits-style percussion. There, I got the most obvious thing to say about this song out of the way, and I can’t claim any originality for having noticed it because nearly every review I’ve read of the album has pointed it out, but I couldn’t let it go unmentioned, either. Vocally, as you’d probably expect, it doesn’t sound like Tom Waits, because these are two singers who couldn’t sound like each other if they tried. I consider this one of the “upbeat” tracks even though tempo-wise, one could make an argument for it being a slower song. It’s got a lumbering, drunken sort of rhythm to it, and there’s a sense of devilish joy as Guy sings of his inability to resist a woman’s temptation. He doesn’t seem to consider it a bad thing – maybe he’ll feel a little remorse and say “Ten Hail Marys in the morning” (I’m kind of amused at the old Catholic guilt that comes creeping in there), but he’s in total awe of her and seems to blame his own foolish tendencies rather than some deliberate scheme on her part for why he keeps falling for her. I think that’s key because it keeps the tone of the song self-deprecating, rather than bitter and sexist. What I like about this song is how well it blends the dark and light. Guy really clinches it with the closing line: “I am reborn, ’cause my girl loves yesterday, and lives for tomorrow.”
This pensive, jazzy torch song about a long-distance relationship might be the biggest departure from Elbow on the entire album. Since it’s piano based and actually gets things right in the percussion department by not laying it on too thick, I actually think the light touch could be well suited to an Elbow record, but still, Elbow’s never actually done anything quite like this. Guy does a duet with Jolie Holland here, and in a touch of irony, she had to record her vocals over the phone due to some sort of a schedule conflict that prevented her from physically being in the studio, which is perfect since the song’s about all of that passion and emotion “fizzing through the lines” as a couple tries to keep the romance alive with an ocean between them. She’s got the perfect voice for this sort of thing – due to the “distant” effect of her voice coming through over the phone, it’s quite easy for me to imagine her as a diva in some old cabaret from the 40s, being broadcast and listened to at home on one of those huge radios they used to have. Pair this one with Vienna Teng‘s “Transcontinental, 1:30 A.M.” if you really want to keep the mood going.
8. Belly of the Whale
You’ll start to notice Garvey repeating some of his same tricks at this point – fun, live drum-oriented dance beat, raucous horn section, catchy chorus that drills itself into your head… there’s a lot here that’s similar to “Harder Edges”, except that where that song was very melodic, this one almost deliberately strips away Garvey’s usual crooning style and focuses almost solely on rhythmic aggression. He’s sort of speak-singing here, and there’s a hint of melody to it, but it’s definitely a subversion of the qualities we’ve come to expect from him so far. Considering how monotonous and repetitive a song like this could have been, I’m actually thrilled that the results are so memorable. the guitars and horns do plenty of singing to make up for the fact that Garvey’s more or less just reciting his madness mantra: “I cannot speak its name, but I will walk into its house and I will breakfast in the belly of the whale.” The song seems to be about an endless amount of back-breaking work he’s endured to build himself a house (possibly a stand-in for his career or some sort of a stable grown-up lifestyle), and his attitude about the whole thing seems to be part “stiff upper lip” and part “loose legs”. (Meaning it’s another one of those songs that inspires a lot of goofy movement on my part.)
9. Broken Bottles and Chandeliers
The setting for this song appears to be the morning after a real rager. Guy’s a bit hung over and yet totally congenial and composed, surveying the damage done by his rowdy houseguests (and perhaps himself) and realizing in the clear light of day that his mistress in a bottle is perhaps not the key to a healthy, happy future. Much like “Unwind” and “Juggernaut”, this song crawls forward carefully, steering clear of the obvious big climax but still laying down some lush horns and a calm but consistent bassline that keeps things moving forward.
10. Three Bells
The closing track is a brief, impressionistic piece, in keeping with the sparser closing numbers on a few of Elbow’s albums in that they seem rather open-ended and un-fussy. This one’s almost a bit too open-ended, not giving me much aside from a three-note bass riff and some background ambiance to hang on to as I try to understand its poetic description of a church on fire while bells sound in the distance. There are probably some parallels between this song and the loss of traditional faith expressed in “Angela’s Eyes”, though I haven’t worked them all out yet, and I don’t know that this song necessarily intended to make any religious or social commentary beyond the weird juxtaposition of finding beauty in something that a lot of folks would find tragic.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Angela’s Eyes $1.75
Courting the Squall $1
Harder Edges $2
Belly of the Whale $1.50
Broken Bottles and Chandeliers $1
Three Bells $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: