Some Cities

(Capitol; 2005)

By Scott Reid | 2 March 2005

You want to know why Elbow went from potentially not-half-bad to painfully mediocre with just two albums? They're boring. Like "why was this album ever made?" boring, not just "this song is going nowhere" boring. I can deal with the latter, I do it all the time, but that's the least of their problems. Cast of Thousands had its moments, sure, but it seemed so by rote, safe, lifeless and contrived (as long as we're being honest, the choir didn't help, either), that the few half-way decent tracks didn't stand a chance. Guy Garvey's got a mad voice, like chilling at times and all that, but by the time he was doing his best Seal impression on "Fugitive Motel," or singing about letting the sun inside, we had the band pegged, and that was the end of that.

It's for exact opposite reasons that Beta Band had a cult following despite being wildly inconsistent; why Radiohead has gained so much wide acceptance in a scene so hell-bent on tearing bands down; and why Blur has continued to survive so long despite boisterously clinging to production fads since Blur. 13 was as much a milestone for the group because of its ability to shift so wholly while still sounding so identifiably Blur, and despite not being the biggest fan of Think Thank, I admit it's equally as easy to hear, and respect, there. The songs might not be the most exciting they've written, but they're never boring, never entirely banal.

Somehow, Manchester's Doves (formerly Sub Sub) got thrown in with the melodramatic brit-rock acts like Coldplay (still at the top of the heap), Elbow (somewhere in the middle) and superfluities like Starsailor (clinging to life at the very bottom). But Lost Souls was no joke, and in no way boring; ignoring a little bit of dead weight along the way, it was, and is, a massive accomplishment of well-produced genre-bending, with brit-pop, atmospheric-, psych- and art-rock, along with any number of electronic genres, all playing major roles. If its first nine tracks somehow didn't convince you (and on the first few listens, they may not), its tenth sure as hell did: "The Cedar Room" alone proved them capable of producing something equally as compelling as any of the "great" British groups of the '90s and early '00s.

Then came "There Goes the Fear." And yeah, OK, not a lot of Last Broadcast lived up to it (what did: the title track, "Sulphur Man," "Satellites" and "Pounding"), but it wasn't that kind of record. Broadcast doesn't aspire to hold together like Lost Souls, and, unsurprisingly, doesn't flow with nearly as much consistency. But the highs are still awfully exciting (despite suffering a bit from its lyrical staleness), and overall the album holds up well enough to forgive how sporadically obvious it is, giving fans of Lost Souls enough reason to think they'd get their shit together next time around.

Now there's "Black and White Town," the first single from their third full-length, Some Cities. At a slim four minutes and change, it's comparatively compact and as potent a single as they've written yet. Does that mean it stands up to "Fear?" Yeah, but this is something else all together; it's a four-on-the-floor mash-up of b-movie soul, disco-surf and art-pop, anchored by an enormously melodic chorus replete with simple harmonies and --- if all that wasn't enough --- a first-take guitar solo so bad it's unforgettable. It's not exactly earth-shattering, but as "infectious" as the Doves are likely to get, and as good a single as any remotely comparable group is going to give us this year.

But you've been burned before, you see another Doves album with a black cover scheme and instantly brand it "more of the same." As if being right doesn't make you happy enough, here's more good news: Some Cities is easily their best since Lost Souls, and while repeated listens won't likely reveal it better than their debut, it's often equally as hypnotizing. It feels more like their Souls than the more direct tangents of Last Broadcast. which gives a lot of leeway to its temporary less-than-stellar lulls. It's a Doves album, so expect them, but they're spaced out enough here to never inflict any significant or lasting damage.

The biggest difference between it and its predecessors is how front-loaded its best songs are. Souls and Broadcast saved most of its strongest cuts for its second side (there are exceptions, I know), but here we get a good share of Cities' best in its first twenty minutes. Instead of the usual opening instrumental, we get a mid-tempo barrage of minor chords and Jimi Goodwin's entire vocal range, though the song itself cuts off to make way for the opening beat of "Black and White Town" before really delivering on the misleading build of its "chorus."

Then there's the more familiar "Almost Forgot Myself," which has the balls to open with the bassline from Van Morrison's "Wild Night." It quickly finds its footing with verses adequate enough to build suspense for its beautiful chorus of spastic "na na na's" and airy lead guitar that adds an enormous amount of weight to Goodwin's dull lyrics. But forget the words, hear the way the song just kind of floats along? Lets hope you like it, because the incredible "Snowden" treks on in its general direction, bookending another lovely and lightly decorated melody with a chorus that gives "Firesuite" competition for their most purposefully anthemic moment to date. Both are more impressive than "Fear" re-write "Walk in Fire:" an enjoyable enough copy, but the way its chorus gets vaguely adult contemporary-- think the most melodramatic of Crooked Fingers' worst--taints an otherwise potentially fine follow-up single.

"The Storm" (a collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto) and the oddly Beatlesesque "Shadows of Salford" are considerably less confident and restrained, but no less compelling, filled with more nods to '60s psych-rock than Nuggets. Even more impressive is how they still maintain the same incredibly detailed and bass-heavy production that gives the record a considerable amount of appeal, often rescuing a number of cuts from plodding in circles. Like the way "The Storm" opens like a Portishead b-side with flat vocals and still manages to develop into a psych-pop epic on par with any forward-thinking Wilson imitators of recent years. . . with a brutal harmonica bit that screams like a train for what seems like forever, at that...see, I know what you're thinking, but believe me, the finale makes it all worthwhile.

I realize I'm not describing any of this at all adequately, but to hear the Doves balance an almost-fierce layered guitar attack with light pop hooks on "Sky Starts Falling," or hear a vaguely psych-folk song like "Someday Soon" dissolve into harmonious dream-pop and trip its way back's far more thrilling than the album's dense atmosphere will initially let on. It's a record that will still be too looming and thick for some, even after repeated listens, and perhaps rightfully so; but for those who are going to get the Doves, that are going to recognize them as one of Britain's most interesting and inventive working bands today, Some Cities will stand as one of the year's nicest surprises.