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Headphone listening is a must for Elbow’s superhyped CinemaScopic debut, Asleep in the Back. From the Pink Floyd-ian organ sound, chanted lyrics, and double-tracked vocals of the six-minute opener, “Any Day Now,” to the arpeggiated acoustic guitars, brushed snares, and torch-song piano that loop through the simmering late-era-Talk Talk-meets-Dave Matthews closer, “Scattered Black and Whites,” and everything in between, Elbow’s music sounds both epic and airy. But for all their widescreen, OK Computer-esque production, singer-songwriter-guitarist Guy Garvey’s songs are essentially about smaller-scale matters—those of the broken heart and the messed-up head. His haunted-sounding, whispery voice (think Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, and the Catherine Wheel’s Rob Dickinson) is the perfect vehicle to deliver his downhearted odes, and his bandmates’ Radioheadlike angry balladry (think stabbing guitars, growling bass lines, and tom-heavy drum beats) is the perfect accompaniment. On “Coming Second,” Garvey sings of losing the girl to someone who’s a bit more together (“Best disheveled lover, three years running/Coming second to/A picket-fence-white 9-to-5 who’s/Just alive”); on “Bitten by the Tailfly,” he notes that he’s “full of wit and chivalry/Until you’ve given in to me”; and on the slow-moving, piano-steered “Powder Blue,” he narrates a tale of heroin addiction (“China White, my bride tonight/Smiling on the tiles”) before throwing in a Thom Yorke-like drawn-out bellow at song’s end. Elbow came together in the early ’90s at a college in Bury, England, but has struggled to find its place in the ever-fickle U.K. scene; V2, in fact, is the third major label in four years for the group, which was dropped by both Island and EMI before it could record an album. But that’s just one setback Garvey has lived to sing about, and it’s helped make Asleep in the Back a mature, thoughtful debut of the sort that most thrust-in-the-spotlight Brit bands don’t get the luxury of producing. —Christopher Porter
Elbow performs with DJ Pogo and South at 8:30 p.m. Monday, March 11, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.