Here comes another Big Big Train album. I honestly was a bit wary of reviewing it. The record is called Common Ground, and it releases today, July 30th.
You may remember my review for their last record, Grand Tour. I felt like it was a balanced take, but many people took it as primarily negative, and I ended up feeling bad about it. But my opinion remains unchanged on that record. Thankfully, however, Common Ground doesn’t fall into all the same traps as its predecessor.
Big Big Train comes to us from the UK, and they have been seeing some changes of late. One of the things that plagued Grand Tour was the bloated sound, possibly due to the long genealogy of musicians who were involved. Common Ground is definitely scaled back considerably. The musicians present are David Longdon on lead vocals, Gregory Spawton on bass, Rikard Sjöblom on guitars, keyboards, and vocals, and Nick D’Virgilio on drums and vocals. Guests include: a five piece brass ensemble, Carly Bryant on keys and vocals, Dave Foster on guitars, Clare Lindley on violin and vocals, and Aidan O’Rourke on violin. That’s basically half the number of people on the last album.
The band’s sound has changed somewhat, too. This album isn’t as pastoral or retro prog in nature. In fact, though those elements are still present, a more modern, fresh, and even quirky progressive rock has appeared in their place. The music relies on David Longdon’s fantastic vocals more than ever, and you’ll even hear some heavier rock sections that took me off guard.
The album feels awkward and strange at times, but I’ve learned to like that about it upon multiple listens. A good example of this is “All the Love We Can Give”. This is such a weird song. David (I think) sings in a strange baritone, which doesn’t sound natural at all, but the song takes it in stride, and there are some wonderful instrumental portions and also vocal spots from other band members. It shouldn’t work, and there are moments that certainly don’t, but it overall does feel like a fresh take from this band.
And that is what strikes me as most important here. Common Ground isn’t BBT’s best album, not by a long shot. If I had to compare it to another BBT release, I would say it reminds me of 2007’s The Difference Machine, although I can’t vocalize why that is. In my Grand Tour review, I mentioned that the band seemed stuck in a rut creatively, making the same album over and over. Well, I can say with aplomb that this has changed, and that this album represents a renewed creative focus for the band. Does everything hit just right? Not at all, but the band at least brings new ideas and eras into their sound.
Pretty much every song builds on this renewed vision, except for possibly the instrumental “Apollo”, which is a good track but definitely could have fit on Grand Tour. Of course, the track preceding it is also instrumental; “Headwaters” is a piano ballad and absolutely gorgeous. “The Strangest Times” opens the record, and while I don’t think the chorus is all that memorable, I do like the energy and enthusiasm. “Black with Ink” is another interesting track, feeling more 80s to my ears, and the female vocals (Carly or Clare, I’m not sure) really add an element that BBT has been missing. I’d like to hear more of that. In fact, I remember David doing a duet with Christina Booth from Magenta for the cover of Hackett’s “Spectral Mornings”, so I think this is a strong suit for David.
My favorite songs all come in the second half. In fact, they are the last three: “Common Ground”, “Atlantic Cable”, and “Endnotes”. The title track feels like it could have been on English Electric, Part 1 (my favorite), save for the lyrical focus on current social issues. It has a great chorus, and David sounds amazing. “Atlantic Cable” is a quirky, vibrant song that lasts for fifteen minutes. In between the various keyboard solos, there is a subtle and even cinematic quality that attracts me. Finally, “Endnotes” closes the album with an illustrious, horn-laden finale. It feels regal and confident.
I also want to mention here that BBT recently released a remix of 2009’s The Underfall Yard, an album I have struggled to like ever since it was launched. This remix, however, makes the album much better, and it also adds a bonus track called “Brew and Burgh”, and let me tell you—this is one of my favorite songs of 2021. I absolutely love it. It has all the emotion, friendship, and love that I want from BBT, and that sometimes they forget. The music video is absolutely stunning, as well. My kids and I have watched it many times.
I think Big Big Train are making their own way again. Common Ground isn’t a perfect album, but it has its moments, and it feels like the first new sound from the band since English Electric, Part 1. I applaud them for recreating themselves and for their obvious class and artistry. For the first time in years, I feel hope and even excitement for the future of this band.
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