The best band you've never heard

Elbow's new CD, "Cast of Thousands," certainly lives up to its title. The album's track "Grace Under Pressure" features roughly 8,000 singers. And yes, each vocalist is listed in the credits, making for a CD booklet that, one imagines, has more names than the Guam phone directory.

The British band recruited the legion of backup singers at England's 2002 Glastonbury music festival by teaching the crowd a singalong. Audience members were later invited to submit their names.

Yet, even with the inclusion of the Glastonbury crowd - a built-in audience, as it were - sales of "Cast of Thousands" have been, at best, middling. Despite accolades from critics and a one-man publicity campaign by Coldplay's Chris Martin, Elbow's status as "the best band you've never heard" is in danger of becoming "the best band you never heard."

"No one's quite sure what to do with us, even though a lot of people like the album," says Craig Potter, Elbow's keyboard player, calling from Manchester, England. "A lot of our songs are long and slow, and a lot of people find it difficult to get past that."

Elbow's music is uncluttered. Muted piano and guitar are only slightly more prominent than the rumble of an upright bass or drums that sound as if they're being played by raindrops. There's plenty of Radiohead-style experimentation, but the songs also soar with sudden swoops of vocal harmonies. If anything, the music is a platform for singer Guy Garvey, whose voice epitomizes the Pink Floyd lyric, "quiet desperation is the English way."

It's not the sort of music that goes over well in supermarket aisles between PA announcements.

There was a time when the band pandered to commercialism. Before it was signed, Elbow played something approximating funk. "It wasn't really the stuff we'd listen to ourselves," admits Mr. Potter. "We stopped trying to write singles to please record company scouts. And it was only then that our stronger stuff started to come out, and that's when people started to notice."

But Elbow's first album was never released after the person who signed the band was fired. Then, another major label backed out. After Elbow released a successful EP, V2 records came calling. The band's 2001 debut, "Asleep in the Back," was nominated for Britain's Mercury Prize for album of the year. "Cast of Thousands," the follow-up, has had even better reviews.

"Just the other day, John Cale [of The Velvet Underground] was on the radio program called 'Desert Island Discs' over here, and he chose one of our tracks for one of his [favorite] eight songs," says Potter in disbelief. News like that strengthens the band's resolve. "We will always do whatever we want, and no one else's opinion will matter," says Potter. "Our goals for the future are just to keep writing and just earn enough to keep doing it, really."

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