Cough Hack Wheeze
A Sick Excuse for a Column

For some reason, I’m sick again, hacking up a lung as I type this.

So I apologize in advance, but I’m going to try to be as brief as possible. And then I’m going to crawl back into bed. I was originally going to write a pair of in-depth reviews this week, but I think I’ll just give you capsules instead. But please don’t mistake my lack of concentration this week for lack of enthusiasm about the albums in question. They are both excellent, and worth your time and attention.

Elbow’s fourth album, The Seldom-Seen Kid, is magnificent, in fact. Guy Garvey and his band have often been accused of meandering through their records, bringing the pretty but little else, which may explain why they haven’t had the success of their contemporaries (Coldplay, Travis, Keane). Their last album, Leaders of the Free World, went some distance towards remedying that – it was louder, for one thing – but it’s with this album that Garvey and company have learned that pretty and propulsive don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

“Starlings” is a fascinating opener, with its lounge beat punctuated by out-of-nowhere synth blasts. But it’s Garvey’s hangdog voice that captures the attention – his melody floats above the wispy background, grounding it. Elsewhere, though, Elbow turn up the amps and bring it. The best of these tracks is “Grounds for Divorce,” which brings in a healthy Zeppelin influence. Through it all, Elbow keeps the atmosphere of their earlier records, and when they slow it down (on the string-laden “One Day Like Today,” for example) they shine. This is Elbow’s finest hour, and if they’re serious about bowing out after this one, they’ve made a swell swan song.

Unwed Sailor has also learned the same lesson. Their last album, The White Ox, was so ambient and atmospheric that it barely called attention to itself. The brand new Little Wars finds them returning to the live-band feel of their earlier records, but keeping the focus on beautiful little melodies. Unwed Sailor is the instrumental project of bassist Jonathan Ford, and this one features a cast of thousands in support – it was recorded in three different sessions over seven years.

Remarkably, though, you’d never know it – Little Wars feels like a complete work. For the first time since The Faithful Anchor, most of these instrumental songs have thumping, explosive beats behind them, but Ford and his co-conspirators use them as a foil, spinning webs of gossamer around the snare drum pylons. I love every album these guys have done, but if you had to pick just one to tell you what they’re all about, I’d suggest this one. Little Wars is dazzling.

* * * * *

And now, a look ahead at new music winging your way in the next few months. (Yes, this is my way of filling out a column quickly, so I can have a nap. Deal with it.)

There are some landmark albums set to hit stores this spring and summer, and one of them is slated for next week. It’s been 11 interminable years since Portishead put out their self-titled second album, and the musical landscape has changed dramatically while they’ve been away. Thankfully, Portishead themselves don’t seem to have changed very much – they’ve cleverly titled their third album Third, and what I’ve heard sounds like the same ghostly trip-hop they delivered in the ‘90s. It’s going to be nice to have them back.

April 29 has a few more blasts from the past, with new albums from Madonna, Def Leppard, Tom Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch, and Sarah McLachlan. Also, Dweezil Zappa releases a CD/DVD document of his Zappa Plays Zappa tour. I attended one of those shows, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and it was one of the finest concerts I’ve ever been to.

May 6 sees the new Elvis Costello, Momofuku, released on CD, three weeks after its vinyl-and-download-only debut. I admit, I’m mystified by this release strategy, but at least I get to hear it in my format of choice. Hammock’s new album Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow is scheduled for May 6 too, as is Barenaked Ladies’ children’s album, Snacktime. (Buy all three of those together and see what kind of strange looks you get at the record store.)

Another landmark release – May 13 will see Narrow Stairs, the seventh Death Cab for Cutie LP. I adored Plans, their 2006 album, but I felt it was about as far as they could go with the sound they’d been spinning for more than a decade. Narrow Stairs reportedly does the watusi all over that sound, exploring styles the Death Cabbers have never attempted before. The first single, the eight-minute, bass-heavy jam “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is streaming on their MySpace page now – check it out.

Also on May 13, new ones from Filter, Old 97s, No-Man and the Myriad. Then, on May 20, King’s X hopefully continues the serious roll they’ve been on with XV. Joy Electric returns on May 27 with My Grandfather, the Cubist (a more Joy Electric title Ronnie Martin could not have chosen), and Aimee Mann saunters back to store shelves on June 3 with the awesomely-titled @#%&*! Smilers.

June 10 is a big week, with the new Sloan, Parallel Play, leading the pack. My Morning Jacket comes back with Evil Urges, as does Robert Pollard with Robert Pollard is Off to Business. Supergrass returns, too, with the worst album title of the year: Diamond Hoo Ha. This is in direct contrast with Martha Wainwright’s second album, which sports probably my favorite title of 2008 so far: I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too.

Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends hits on June 17, as does Motley Crue’s reunion album Saints of Los Angeles, and Wolf Parade’s second, which may or may not be called Kissing the Beehive. But the what-the-fuck prize goes to Judas Priest and their two-disc concept album about Nostradamus. (Called, naturally, Nostradamus.) I’ll write more about this later, but it sounds like a shoo-in for the Spinal Tap Award of 2008.

Weezer comes back on June 24 with another self-titled effort, this one already nicknamed The Red Album. But I’m much more excited about a color on the opposite end of the spectrum: Peter Gabriel’s Big Blue Ball project should finally – finally – see the light that same day. More than 15 years in the making, Big Blue Ball is a distillation of Gabriel’s “one world, one music” aesthetic, featuring contributions from dozens of artists from all over the globe. Should be awesome.

Other things coming: John Mellencamp’s pretentiously-named Life, Death, Love and Freedom; Dr. Dog’s Fate; Soulfly’s Conquer; a self-titled solo album from Conor Oberst; and Holy Ghost Building, the long-awaited old-time gospel and blues album from the 77s. And somewhere in there will be Marillion’s 15th album, a double-disc opus entitled Happiness is the Road. And that’s all I know.

Next week, Portishead. Sorry for copping out this week, but I need to lie down for about a month now.

See you in line Tuesday morning.