Like Big Big Train, this poetic album blends folk, soft-prog and a personal take on historic events. It deserves a wide audience.
Label: Talking Elephant
Time: 7 Tracks / 67 mins
Starting with a nod to “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” (with a slight Spaghetti Western twist) this very English album is a well-kept secret that deserves to be shared.
It blends folk, prog and a personal take on historic events. Folk, because it recounts stories of watery disasters with a lightness that belies the tragedy; prog, because three tracks outlast ten minutes and players include alumni from Caravan, Jethro Tull and Van der Graf Generator; and personal, because band members have family links to some of these stories.
After a lively intro, a fizzing synth plays alongside saxes multitracked to give a brass section sound on “Ghost Planes.” It’s a track where brief sound clips help to tell the WW2 story of ‘doodlebug’ pilotless flying bombs coming over London from the point of view of an ARP warden and notably children, who sensed the excitement, but didn’t recognise the dangers. Those speaking are relatives of the band’s keys player Mike Westergaard.
Highly poetic, the track’s lyrics tell how,
“The ghost planes scorch the sky...
A Wellsian dream awakens, a robot war is born.
Blue skies and tailwinds, and God help one and all.”
Soundbites also add to the central song, the 23-minute "White Star's Sunrise" about the sister ships ‘Olympic’, ‘Britannic’ and ‘Titanic,’ two of which sank. Several musical themes interweave, one of which sounds like they have put lyrics to Genesis’ beautiful “Hairless Heart” instrumental. This may be the only misstep on the whole project – they have a great melody, but risk over-using it. Taken at a sailing pace, the whole song is tune-led and has symphonic moments. As with most of this collection, solos are sparse, but short instrumental passages abound.
Knowing the background certainly ups appreciation of several songs. The two-parter that virtually bookends the album, “Rosherville,” tells the story of a 19th century new town started by Jeremiah Rosher, which included acres of pleasure gardens. Only a short steamship journey away from London, it drew thousands of visitors. One day “The Princess Alice,” leaving its pier, collided with another boat, with the loss of 640 lives, 240 of them children. Rosherville itself also died, when the advent of trains made trips to the coast a better alternative.
While first part describes it, the second covers its downfall and features a spoken section read by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. It has a magnificent main theme reprised in the part two and is again a beautifully constructed pair of pieces. (Headphones also highlight some beautfully placed bass work from Nick Jefferson.)
Gentle melodies abound. “Holywell Street” is about a London road famous in Victorian days for its pornographic literature, but again the dreamy, airily beautiful sound gives no hint of the grubby tale below it.
Infused with the gentle ominous quiet of twilight, "The Nightwatchman" is a ballad sung from the point of view of a watching owl, noting the legacy of damage that we are passing on to the next generations “We borrowed from you and returned it broken.” An extended, relaxed piano intro leads to some similar guitar work. “We turn in circles around the sun and take no blame for the evil we’ve done. As darkness falls, the nightwatchman calls.”
Across the disc, instruments and vocals all work together to make this a crafted work of art, so it is hard to pick out particular team members, but Dorie Jackson’s vocals are clear, strong and warm, while her father, Van der Graf’s David Jackson, plays far more pastorally than in that band’s day, with more flutes and fewer saxes. His sax climax to “White Star Sunrise” is a terrific ending, though.
Never bombastic or simplistic, this rewards careful listens and there is so much built into this album that there always seem to be new moments to notice. It’s a great way to learn new stories, or fresh angles on well-known ones.