“And I thought about how many people have loved those songs. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs. And how many people enjoyed good times with those songs. And how much those songs really mean. I think it would be great to have written one of those songs. I bet if I wrote one of them, I would be very proud. I hope the people who wrote those songs are happy. I hope they feel it’s enough. I really do because they’ve made me happy. And I’m only one person.” – Steven Chbosky – The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
If you’ve been a follower of my reviews then you’ll know that I like to open with a pertinent quote so, when it came to reviewing the latest release from one of my all time favourite bands, I searched long and hard for one that I thought captured my feelings the best.
In the last five or six years I have been through some exceedingly tough times, some of the lowest of my life and yet, throughout, I have been kept sane by my love of music and, especially, by the emotionally uplifting songs of Big Big Train so, when I first saw the quote above, it resonated with me immediately and on a very intimate level.
The new album is called ‘Folklore’ and yet the press release states that,
“Despite the album title, ‘Folklore’ is by no means a collection of traditional-sounding folk music pieces. On ‘Folklore’, Big Big Train are reimagining and breathing new life into traditional themes, and also creating a few new ones along the way. The crafts of songwriting and storytelling beat strongly at the heart of the Big Big Train and inform every track on the new album.”
Well, this got me thinking about how folk and, in particular, how storytelling through song actually began? Are you sitting comfortably? then we’ll begin…..
Older than civilization, storytelling has always played a central role in in our lives and societies. Tales were told to replay and celebrate historic events. They were salutary and cautionary tales, lessons.
Some of the oldest, greatest tales, myths, and legends are written in verse– the Iliad and the Odyssey, the old testament, and some of the traditional Irish epics. Even Tolkien used song in the Hobbit and LOTR as back story. Just as in our world, the people of Middle Earth told the tales of the great heroes through verse.
Think of Orpheus, arguably one of the most famous musicians. Gifted by the gods, he was a man who, armed with only his lyre, was able to charm beasts, defeat the Sirens, and brave the Underworld to win back Eurydice. He used music to fight his battles.What a concept! Now, if everyone did that, the world would be a much better place.
Throughout history, people have used song to convey their messages. Troubadours would travel the countryside, telling their tales and singing their songs to kings and noblemen. These songs were silly, they were tragic, they were entertaining.
Slaves in the American South would create and sing songs while they toiled away in the hot fields, they were a distraction from the horrors of their everyday lives. During the Depression, folksingers used song to fight back against the government, to raise awareness, and again, to give hope.
Songs are a powerful way to get your message across. They are our fears, our desires, our hopes, our dreams, our losses, our celebrations, our sorrows, our joys, our memories, our experiences. They are, each and every one of them, a story.
(adapted from Caitlin Nicholl’s Storytelling Through Music)
And, in Big Big Train, we have the modern troubadours and storytellers of our generation. They keep history alive by reimagining it to music and verse.
‘Folklore’ features the same line-up (eight piece band and brass quintet) that performed three sell out shows at Kings Place in London in August 2015, with the addition of a string quartet. The album was mixed and mastered by the redoubtable Rob Aubrey.
“Folklore – Ancient stories told by our ancestors around the campfire, being passed from generation to generation. The passage of time sees the coming of a written language and electronic communication, but we still tell our stories and pass them on.”
The opening to Folklore is quite inspiring with the strings and then the brass building your anticipation before a short lull. And off we go….. The intricate drumming of Nick D’Virgilio backs the instantly recognisable vocal of David Longdon on what definitely feels like a folk inspired opening to the track. A song about the history of folk songs and storytelling, the guitar riff, though intentionally low in the mix, is really addictive and then the vocals build up towards the memorable chorus that has you singing along immediately. This song is anthemic in style and delivery, intended to fill the listener with a passion and pride and the powerful voice of Longdon, aided and abetted by some impressive backing vocals, really delivers in that aspect.
“For it is said, so it lives on
we pass it down, it carries on
Oh down we go into folklore….”
When I first heard the song I must admit that I thought it was very much in the vein of Wassail with its intricate instrumental sections and rather upbeat tempo. The guitar solo is absolutely wonderful and quite inspiring. To be honest, although I liked it, it was not one of the tracks that resonated with me immediately but, after a few listens, I was singing along to the chorus with the best of them. It is motivating, uplifting and inspirational and the way the song runs out is just brilliant.
“London Plane – Once upon a time, a great tree took root on a river bank and watched through the years as a city grew around it…”
Across their burgeoning discography, Big Big Train have given us many poignant, emotional and moving songs and London Plane falls immediately into that category. The second longest track on the album, it opens with a gentle guitar and flute that immediately pluck the heartstrings before David’s lush voice sings a tale of a mighty tree that sees the birth of London and it’s growth and aggrandizement across the centuries. The heavenly backing vocals give a wistful and whimsical feel. It is contemplative and reflective and leaves me with a lump in my throat, especially when the quite wonderful chorus breaks out with its delicately harmonised vocals and that ethereal flute playing in the background.
“Time and tide wait for no man
and now the ship has sailed
and the crowds fade away.
But by the water’s edge
at the end of the road
I still reach for the day’s last light.”
A song that draws you into its warm embrace to a place where time stands still and the weight of hundreds of years of history just washes off your shoulders. The humbling guitar solo in the middle of the song just seems so perfect and well, right and leaves me on the edge of joyful tears. No one writes music about the history of our Island like this band and it connects on so many levels. There’s a nice intricate instrumental section where the strings get to come to the fore, backed by that fantastic flute, and there is some rather excellent guitar work, all adding a progressive gravitas to the warmth and emotion of the pastoral feel to the music. As the song comes to a memorable close, the emotive guitar solo (and, oh, what a solo!) and the music filling your heart with joy, I find myself thinking we have another Big Big Train classic on our hands.
“Along The Ridgeway – A journey along an ancient pathway, where legends are reborn…”
A dolent sound signals the introduction to Along The Ridgeway, another tale rooted deep in the history of this magical land. Graceful piano and plaintive brass usher in David’s vocal, this time with the merest mournful hint to them. David Longdon was born to be a storyteller, his emotive, stirring voice draws you in and leads you on a journey that becomes more life affirming the further this amazing album goes on. You ride along a mystical pathway buoyed by the music, the brass adding a further depth and the brilliant violin of Rachel Hall counter-playing with Rikard Sjöblom’s lively keyboards.
“And by the light of the moon
Alfred sounds his stone
and legends are reborn.”
The soaring chorus, backed by the wonderful brass playing just takes you on a high before the voices sing the repeated mantra of the Salisbury Giant and we segue straight into the instrumental of the same name…..
“Salisbury Giant – Big Big Train tell the true story of a medieval giant.”
An instrumental telling the tale of the Salisbury Giant, a pageant figure of the Salisbury guild of Merchant Tailors who would be led, by the hand, through the streets, first recorded in 1496 when led by the Mayor and Corporation, they went in procession to meet King Henry VII and his Queen, who were staying at nearby Clarendon Palace.
“Here comes the Salisbury Giant
here comes a lonely man
a crowd of people lead him by the hand.”
It has an urgency to it, the staccato strings, deep in tone, are almost apprehensive. The Hammond organ adds a feel of Hob-Nob, the giant’s companion, who was the mischievous character who cavorted in front in the procession clearing the way for the Giant. There’s a definite capricious feel to the music as it leads you on a merry dance, occasionally opening up to soar high with the sparkling strings and then that repeated mantra runs this delightful little track out to a close.
The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun – When the astronomer lost the love of his life, he set a course for the stars. Inspired by the much-loved astronomer and educationalist, Patrick Moore.”
Damn, I’ve got something in my eye again, a love song and a song of love, The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun opens with some signature Big Big Train brass that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and the violin just adds that extra bit of poignancy and emotional blackmail. A better opening to a song you will not hear this year, I’m already transfixed and we’ve only just got started. As the brass fades away the song expands with some delicate guitar and piano before David Longdon takes on the role of Bard and takes us on a magical mystery tour of the celestial heavens. Take a minute and just let the music and lyrics wash over you and absorb them into your very being, this is music that soothes the soul and calms any fevered brow. The soulful chorus is a thing of wonder and beauty that leaves you becalmed and in a place where nothing can hurt you.
“So many words left unsaid
so many deeds left undone
so many tales without an end
the transit of Venus across the Sun.”
Take some more spine tingling brass and add it to the mix and you are, literally, in a musical heaven. When I first got the album, I played it back to back five times and was impressed more and more with each listen and it is songs like Transit that touch you to the core, the guitar solo elegantly played at the end is just fantastic.
Wassail – The old ways get a 21st century reboot in this pagan inspired progressive-folk groove.”
The title track from Big Big Train‘s ‘Wassail’ E.P. that was released last year, it gets a fine reworking here. The guitar and flute opening brings the memories of the live Kings Place gigs flooding back and David’s frontman antics with his Wassail mask. Perhaps, on first listening, it has less of an impact because it isn’t a ‘new’ track, so to speak. However, after you’ve sung the catchy chorus at the top of your voice a few times, it certainly comes flooding back. Definitely a more folk-direction for the band, this song had some thinking that the whole album would be like this but, paired with the title track, they just add another string to this celebrated band’s already imposing bow.
“We sing our song
Stand fast, stand strong
Bough and leaf bear fruit aplenty.”
A more direct and powerful track, compared to the delicate nuances of some on this album, it is still cleverly written and, as expected with musicians of this calibre, superbly performed. I always find myself gravitating to the more emotionally complex tracks that Big Big Train produce but, when the moment takes you, this rollicking, roller coaster of a folk-fest really hits the spot.
(Me, Tobbe Janson & Greg Spawton at the Real World launch)
“Winkie – A ripping adventure story about a true life war heroine, the first to receive the Dickin medal in honour of her achievement. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first prog epic about a pigeon…”
Well, where do I start, a Boy’s Own prog epic in 7 parts about a famous pigeon, the Winkie of the title, that saved the crew of a bomber lost in 1942. It’ll never work will it? Well, on first listen, I wasn’t convinced but, once again, give this song time to work its way into your affections and you will be hooked…..
The opening does nothing to prepare you for what is to come, flute and the cooing of pigeons before a folkish rhythm takes up the mantle, foot tapping commences and off we go. David takes on a more literal storytelling role on this track and relates the story verbatim as almost a chant with parts of this ripping yarn given like radio messages. The whole tale is gripping and involving and the music rushes you along all the way on the edge of your seat. Intricate keyboards, powerful guitars and clever drumming all add to the authenticity of the account of the loss of the crew and their subsequent rescue.
“You flew safely home Winkie
Hey, the inaugural recipient
You flew straight, flew true,
The use of the keyboards and flute to denote Winkie’s flight is really clever and has you rooting for our heroine all the way through. It’s a hopeless task, with only an S.O.S from the radio, can Winkie save the day? Come on, you didn’t think it was going to end in heroic failure did you?
“But thank God, fifteen minutes in
the crew are found, safe and sound
Thanks to their winged saviour…”
A true prog epic about an heroic pigeon, who’d have thought it? Well, thankfully for all of us, Big Big Train did…..
“Brooklands – John Cobb, racing driver, lived life at high speed on the racing line. Time passes, but the ageing driver yearns for one more adrenaline filled lap of the track…. Cobb died in 1952 while attempting the world water speed record at Loch Ness.”
Great songwriters are inspired by their surroundings and experiences and a visit to the historic racing circuit at Brooklands is what gave Greg Spawton the idea for this almost biographical tale.
The longest track on the album, Brooklands opens with an almost melancholy feel engendered by the violin, guitar and drums before opening up with sepia tinged hues of nostalgia and a much more upbeat note. David sings about the car travelling around the track and the experiences that the driver remembers from his youth. Intensely visceral, you almost feel like you are there in a time before the track became weed infested and broken and life was much more carefree. The driver recounts how he was lucky to be able to have lived such a life.
“I was a lucky man, a lucky man.
I did the things I can,
the things I can’t explain.”
Things are brought sharply back into focus and up to the present day, the racer, now in the twilight of his years, wants to feel the wind in his hair and experience the excitement one more time. The brilliance of the songwriting leaves you completely involved in the narrative, these are songs that all share a story with the listener, one that is involving and intimate and affectionate. The intelligently crafted music is almost lyrical in the way that invokes the wind in the hair feel of the car flying round the race track, dangerously exhilarating and bracing.
“On the racing line
lived life at high speed
too fast too far.”
To use music to evoke feelings and emotions and to do it well is a seriously impressive skill and is, for me, what separates proper songwriters and musicians from the run of the mill artists that churn out insipid chart fodder and Big Big Train are true masters of that art. The rolling piano, flowing guitar and powerful drums all paint pictures in your mind that are finished off by the exquisite flute playing, add in the engrossing and captivating vocals and the musical tapestry is complete.
Telling The Bees – Traditionally, bees were told of births, deaths and marriages within the bee-keeper’s family, as it was believed that otherwise they would leave the hive.
Once again, taking a traditional piece of ‘folklore‘ and reimagining it, Telling The Bees is a moving story of how, when his father dies in the First World War, a young boy takes on the responsibility of the bees, grows up to become a man, finds love and starts his own family.
“The bees are told…..and we carry on….”
Written by David Longdon, the guitar introduction gives it a feel of his ‘Wild River’ solo project. Imagine yourselves sat around in a circle, rapt in concentration, as this modern day troubadour relates another nostalgia soaked tale rooted deep in the history of England. Telling The Bees is a wonderful piece of music that has the ability to whisk you away to the sun drenched summer fields and to a time when life was much more simple and easy going.
“The joy is in the telling
The sorrow in the soul
Tears of happiness and sadness..”
David’s vocals are honey sweet and velvet covered as they seem to lift any worries or cares from your shoulders and the music is just beatific and awe-inspiring. The musicians produce something akin to delicate reverence, a guitar solo that drips honesty and love and the vocals are nigh on perfect. As this charming and graceful track brings a close to what can only be described as a stunning album, I honestly do wipe a glad tear of joy from my eye…..
It was always going to be hard to follow ‘The Underfall Yard’ and the ‘English Electric’ albums but the acknowledged masters of pastoral progressive rock and intelligent and incisive storytelling have returned with a fresh collection of stories and tales gleaned from our heritage and history. With their penchant for heartfelt lyrics and beautiful music it is an involving and mesmerising journey that everyone should take at least once in their life……..
Released 27th May 2016.