By David Browne
January 23, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

For such a self-effacing group of musicians, Coldplay have left an awfully large footprint on the landscape. Their vaguely spiritual songs about hope, loss, and distress are elliptical enough to apply to any situation and appealing enough for multiple radio formats. Their imprint is even more apparent in their native England. For the past decade, every new Brit band yearned to be the next Radiohead. Now, based on sophomore albums by Starsailor and Elbow, the new archetype appears to be Coldplay — rock that’s less abrasive, and more comforting, than Radiohead’s has ever been.

Wedding ethereal mood music to abstruse lyrics has never been a problem for Elbow. Their 2001 debut, ”Asleep in the Back,” had a dreamy, anesthetized quality, floating rather than rocking, and their second disc, ”Cast of Thousands,” is no different. Like Coldplay’s Chris Martin (at least pre-Gwyneth), singer Guy Garvey seems resigned to his share of romantic turmoil, which he communicates by way of rueful lyrics (”Leave me and the plants die”) and a delivery akin to one long sigh. The slithering guitars and off-kilter rhythms that surround him make for music that’s the definition of late-night listening, when everyone else is asleep and you’re alone with your thoughts. But just when this occasionally draggy album threatens to give in to its own malaise, the band interjects a loud, jarring organ or jagged noise; ”Snooks (Progress Report),” one of the album’s most compelling moments, is a mambo for manic-depressives.

If one has a thirst for Coldplay-style passion over Elbow-like restraint and subtlety, then Starsailor is your cup of Earl Grey. Frontman and songwriter James Walsh’s lack of an operatic falsetto doesn’t stop him from going over the top, vocally or emotionally; on the band’s rugged 2002 debut, ”Love Is Here,” he reveled in his impassioned yelp and a brooding restlessness. ”Silence Is Easy,” the follow-up, is the band’s crack at maturity. Now a father, Walsh sings a simple yet mesmerizing testament to devotion, ”Fidelity,” and the arrangements are more expansive than those of the debut. Gale-force strings, wah-wahing guitars, and Latin percussion swoop in, adding to Walsh’s grippingly overheated performances; on the discofied ”Four to the Floor,” Starsailor sound as if they’re playing at a London version of Studio 54. Ironically, the two tracks produced by Phil Spector — the chugging-locomotive title song and the wispier ”White Dove” — are relatively subdued, quite unlike the orchestrated pomp one expects from the legally embroiled studio master (they’re less Walls of Sound than fences).

Far from a perfect next step, ”Silence” suffers from some slight songs; growth also means more bare ballads, which isn’t the band’s strength. As with all post-Coldplay Britpop, enraptured, full-throttle melodrama suits them better.