English Boy Wonders (reissue)
English Electric Recordings, 2008
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/04/2011
One of the privileges of writing for a site like the Daily Vault is the ability to work backwards through an artist’s catalogue if you so choose. One of the privileges of being a completely independent artist is to do the same, though it’s a considerably less common.
Big Big Train produced three of my favorite releases of the last four years in The Difference Machine, The Underfall Yard, and Far Skies Deep Time. During that same period of time, they also issued a freshly mixed and partially rerecorded edition of their 1997 album English Boy Wonders, which had been released originally at the tail end of the band’s relationship with independent label GEP on a shoestring budget and, in the band’s eyes, never properly finished. Given especially that the album contained a number of strong and very personal compositions, founding members guitarist/keyboardist/principal composer Gregory Spawton and bassist/producer Andy Poole welcomed the opportunity to try to right what they felt was a distinct wrong in the group’s musical history.
And so it came to pass that in 2008, Spawton and Poole revisited EBW, enhancing the original vocal, drum and piano tracks with mostly re-recorded guitar and organ parts and remixing the entire effort into something much closer to Spawton’s original vision. I don’t know if the group will view this aspect of this review as a positive or a negative, but I’ve never heard the original tracks, and so came to this release with fresh ears, prepared to take the album at face value in more or less the state they had always wanted to present it to the world.
One thing is certain—the effort required to re-record the guitar and electric keyboards sounds like it was well worth it. The mid-70s classically British prog Genesis/Yes feel to these songs and arrangements is absolutely there, and the punch and dynamism of the guitar-keyboard interplay shines on beautiful jams like those found in “Big Empty Skies,” “Albion Perfide” and “Reaching For John Dowland.” These tunes in particular have the power and majesty that the best of the band’s later work consistently manifests.
That said, a couple of things about EBW are distinctly different from later BBT work; one is the subject matter. In the reissue’s rearranged run order, about two-thirds of the album has been segregated into a pair of extended suites chronicling the tumultuous path and ultimate dissolution of Spawton’s marriage. Now, I would never say that prog can’t or shouldn’t be personal; to the contrary, albums like The Underfall Yard are fueled by emotion with terrific results. It’s just that the lyrics on EBW often feel (to this listener, at least) uncomfortably personal, giving the album a voyeuristic quality and making the story less universal and more of an individual catharsis.
A second issue for me was Martin Read’s vocals. BBT is a group that’s gone through some significant personnel shifts over the years, perhaps the most significant being at the mike, where the group has over the course of twenty years and six albums featured three different lead vocalists. Current lead voice David Longdon is to my tastes the best fit of the bunch; Longdon’s predecessor Sean Filkins is without question my second favorite. Original vocalist Read trails the pack.
That’s not because Reed’s vocals aren’t of good quality; to the contrary, he has a very pleasant voice, and the vocals are quite polished—the problem is, they feel too polished. He has an upper register voice that’s heading towards Jon Anderson territory but not there, leaving it breathy and airy. This style fits fine when BBT indulges in its poppier tendencies, as on that rather Tears For Fears-ish “Pretty Mom,” but whenever the music gets big and intense (for example, the heavier sections of the climactic and otherwise very satisfying “Boxgrove Man”), Read’s vocals feel mismatched. At other points along the way he slips into a sort of lounge-y croon (e.g. “Fell Asleep”) that feels similarly out of sync.
A few other scattered comments:
-- Opener “Big Empty Skies” is a powerful piece with some terrific guitar work and that dreamy-yet-majestic ’70s prog feel. Unfortunately, it’s saddled with the chorus refrain “Take me to your leader,” the sort of awkward cliché that has been banished entirely from later BBT compositions.
-- Several songs, notably “Brushed Aside” and “A Giddy Thing,” feature the rather jazzy piano stylings of Tony Müller. Again, the musicianship is strong; it just doesn’t feel like a good fit for BBT, and indeed this sort of thing largely disappeared from their sound after this album.
-- “Out Of It” is an enjoyably enigmatic piece, mostly instrumental with dynamic guitar-keyboard interplay and a handful of lyrics that seem to encapsulate the fall of the relationship at the core of the album. Spawton also borrows a favorite line from Oscar Wilde (by way of Chrissie Hynde), noting that “We’re all in the gutter / But some of us are looking at the stars.”
-- “28 Years” features an atmospheric flute intro by Martin Orford (IQ), presaging some of Longdon’s more recent contributions.
In the end, one of the biggest criticisms I have of EBW—and one that I’ve rarely made—is that it’s simply too long. At 14 tracks and 78 minutes, the album offers up a number of wonderful bits, but it’s simply too big of a meal to be consumed in one sitting, which dilutes the overall emotional impact considerably. Later BBT works wow the listener with riffs and jams and focused impact; by contrast, EBW meanders.
It seems that, just as every writer is compelled to write a coming-of-age story, every songwriter must write a breakup album. English Boy Wonders is Big Big Train’s, and while it offers up some captivating individual moments, I’m glad the group has continued to grow and evolve over the intervening years.