The Second Brightest Star

Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings / Giant Electric Pea, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky. For fans of British progressive rock collective Big Big Train, the afterglow of the April 28 release of the group’s latest album Grimspound had just begun to fade when hints began to appear in June that the group might have a surprise up its sleeve. Sure enough, on June 21 the band shocked fans with the announcement of the two-days-later release of their second new album of 2017, The Second Brightest Star. (The fact that they managed to get through all of the media promotion surrounding the release of Grimspound without ever letting slip a hint of the existence of a second album is impressive.)

The band—Greg Spawton (bass), Andy Poole (acoustic guitar, keyboards), David Longdon (vocals, flute, banjo, etc.), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, background vocals), Danny Manners (keyboards), Rachel Hall (violin, background vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitar, keyboards, background vocals)—appropriately refers to The Second Brightest Star as a “companion album” to Big Big Train’s recent, brilliant Folklore (2016) and Grimspound (2017). And indeed, it’s clear from first glance at the track list that this is a sort of “odds and ends” / “clear out the closets” collection picking up bits and pieces and threads remaining from the sessions that produced the prior two albums.

Given this outline, The Second Brightest Star is inevitably a bit of a hodgepodge of songs and ideas, with four instrumentals among its eight core tracks, augmented by re-presentations of two songs from Folklore with new instrumental introductions. As one might expect with a group that consistently delivers music of such high quality, though, a plate of leftovers from Big Big Train still makes for a delicious meal.

Opening the album, the melancholy midnight rumination “The Second Brightest Star” takes a single line from the song “Grimspound” as a starting point for an entirely fresh Longdon tune about searching out and preserving connection in the modern world. Alternating vocal tracks with instrumentals, the band then moves into “Haymaking,” a sprightly, energizing Hall number whose title speaks directly to comments Spawton has made in recent interviews about the band’s drive to “make hay while the sun shines.”

The long-rumored Longdon-Spawton-Sjoblom collaboration “Skylon”—first slated as the title track of an imagined EP of Folklore leftovers that blossomed into the Grimspound album, only to be squeezed out of that set as well—is a pretty but rather somber bit about the 1951 Festival of Britain. It’s apparent why it didn’t fit onto either of the band’s previous albums; it doesn’t feel like a strong musical or tonal match for either. Plus, while it’s an evocative song with a distinctly Gilmour-esque closing guitar solo, it doesn’t feel more deserving than any of the tracks that beat it out for the previous two albums.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The next instrumental, “London Stone” is the original acoustic guitar intro Rikard Sjöblom wrote for Folklore’s “London Plane,” a piece that eventually swelled into the 15-minute epic “A Mead Hall In Winter” found on Grimspound. This version, adding only piano flourishes from Manners, feels almost like an abandoned demo. “The Passing Widow” is a tune written by Hall and sung by Longdon, telling the tale of runner and inspirational speaker Rosie Swale Pop MBE, who addressed her grief over her husband’s passing by setting off to run 20,000 miles around the world. It offers pathos aplenty, though again it’s easy to appreciate why this spare, self-contained song didn’t quite fit into either of the group’s previous releases.

Several tunes here, including “The Leaden Stour,” feature Manners’ rippling, elastic piano lines. “Stour” is a Spawton piece about a section of a nearby river that may or may not be cursed, with black doings returning every century or so on its banks. In its fifth minute the band locks into an unusual-for-them jazz/r&b theme with the horns and the rhythm section playing off one another, a tastefully executed piece of musical stretching-out.

The instrumental “Terra Australis Incognita” finds Manners expanding on themes found near the end of Grimspound highlight “Experimental Gentleman,” a welcome assignment indeed, and a pleasant-enough bridge into the intriguing “expansions” of previously released tracks “Brooklands” and “London Plane” from Folklore.

The “Brooklands” sequence positions “On The Racing Line”—featured as a standalone instrumental on Grimspound—as an introduction to “Brooklands.” The thing is, they appear to have made the right choice the first time. The vibrant “On The Racing Line” is an excellent piece of music all on its own, yet perhaps against expectations, when heard in conjunction with “Brooklands,” it extends the latter song without really improving it.

The “London Plane” sequence leaves a similar impression. Spawton’s fresh introduction “Turner On The Thames” features motifs from the main body of “London Plane,” building into a swell of mellotron and violin that glides right into original song proper. It’s a pleasant-enough addition, but again, is this “sequence” better than the original song, or just longer? I tend to think the latter.

Closer “The Gentlemen’s Reprise” is a hot little nugget, a full-band jam on themes from “Experimental Gentlemen” that didn’t make the final cut of the original song for reasons unknown. D’Virgilio in particular is on fire in this 3:02 sequence, which also features some very pretty guitar and keyboard bits. The way it opens on the heavy side and eases down to a denouement toward the end suggests that it could have been an alternate ending to “Gentlemen.” In any case, it again feels like the band made the best choice here, as “Experimental Gentlemen” is one of the strongest tracks on Grimspound in part because it’s a remarkably tight 10:01.

The latter three tracks aside, The Second Brightest Star tends to emphasizes the more mellow, pastoral side of Big Big Train; there’s not a lot in the first half of this release that one could call stirring. In fact, what this release suggests more than anything is, this band knows what it’s doing and is willing to make the sometimes-difficult decisions necessary to arrive at the strongest versions of both their songs and the albums they end up on. In virtually every case, it’s apparent why the new material found here didn’t fit into the original Folklore and Grimspound releases, and only found a home here on this “companion piece” collection of outtakes.

The music is, as always, performed and produced with great skill and taste, and as a fan it’s fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the creative process that ultimately brought us Folklore and Grimspound. Still, in the end this album is comprised of broadly related tracks and snippets that tend to prove the wisdom of the band’s initial editorial decisions. It’s the kitchen sink, really—albeit a very nice kitchen sink, one that any sensible person would want in their home.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2017 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of English Electric Recordings / Giant Electric Pea, and is used for informational purposes only.