Superficially, not much separates Elbow from the pack of post-Radiohead/Coldplay rock acts rushing in from Europe. Dreamy ballads? Check. Strings and piano? Yes, sir. Aimless arty abrasion? Don't even ask. But what keeps this particular Manchester quintet from sliding off into heard-it-already-land is that the band owns the echoing, jarring guitar-pop style of the moment, rather than simply stealing it outright. Elbow's 2001 album Asleep In The Back marked the group as one to watch, with its hard-rock overtones, gentle undertones, and proggy structures. Cast Of Thousands makes good on its predecessor's promise, primarily because bandleader Guy Garvey has come into his own as a versatile vocalist and simple-but-powerful lyricist. On the gorgeous "Fugitive Motel," Garvey keeps his cushioned voice at an even, resounding pitch while singing lines like "Cigarette holes for every lost soul / to give up the ghost in this place." With Garvey's downwardly melodic performance and the rest of Elbow's elegant atmospherics wafting in the background, the mood of romantic melancholia is as believable as tear-streaked Britpop gets. Elsewhere on Cast Of Thousands, Elbow moves beyond mere mope. "Snooks (Progress Report)" has a Peter Gabriel-esque, scary-worldbeat feel, while "Crawling With Idiot" mates Pink Floyd-like drama with Beatles-y airiness, discovering new ways to get into floating, mind-vacation mode. Cast Of Thousands also has room for a noise-scarred martial experiment like "Whisper Grass" and a perfect little pop concoction like "Not A Job," which holds its hook in the soft bassline, just like U2 used to do. The album as a whole sounds more adventurous in arrangement and production than Elbow's contemporaries have been: The song-structures possess Radiohead's abstract bent, but maintain Coldplay's engaging audience connectivity. And while so many of this new wave of neo-arena rockers have been compared to those two, Elbow may be the first that's good enough to merit it.