David Longdon, Wild River (2004)
Those of us who grew up in the era of 70s rock remember a time when American FM stations played everything under the sun, and didn’t bother too much with categories, straight-ahead, punk, progressive, or otherwise. There wasn’t really a point, because whether it was Buddy Holly one moment or Yes the next, it just all kind of got lumped together as rock — a young art, then, with lots of potential. I think this achieved a certain illumination in those of us tuned in, to the potential of finding complex worlds even in the simplest of songs, and fresh air in a 12-minute time-changing epic. There’s a lot of discussion on Progarchy, veiled and explicit, about what prog is. This is as it should be, because there are so many reasons for why music achieves progressiveness. It can be a splatter-art dionysian revelry or a heavily-mannered architecture, but it is the intention that is perhaps similar in the various executions of the art, and why, as I mentioned in another review, prog is riskier, more failure-prone, than, say, old time music or country blues or punk. It is duty-bound to ‘prog’-ress.
I believe one of the ironies of the story of progressive rock is its oft-pointed-to golden period, roughly the early- and mid-70s, when the storied and hairy pioneers of the genre rolled in semi-trucks over the land, painting broad swaths of sidelong vinyl canvas with twiddly squonks and noodly solos, periodically emerging with a real gem that actually sold respectable numbers of triple gatefolds. Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Supertramp, Rush, Barclay James Harvest, those semi-truckers ELP, and the hosts of second stringers who got enough traction with either the freakout crowd (Hawkwind, Gong) or the Middle Earthers (Uriah Heep, Gentle Giant) to keep working bands out on the road for decades longer than anyone would imagine. Then, chapter two, punk raises its head, and the proggers flee their patch bays for the comfort of (often very good, and often quite proggishly weird) new wave pop, digestible without having to get up for a pee mid-song. Yup. For every Foxtrot there are thousands of copies of Abacab, for every Close to the Edge there are bins-full of 90125. Shall I enumerate the ratios for Rush and Supertramp, too, to this crowd? I think not. You hear me. This eventuality was not a bad thing — the proggers were striving to keep their muse alive in an era of undeniably important cultural change — and I think it by and large says a lot about the survival instincts and musicianship of the first-stringers. Yes, I will always wish Rush had another “Xanadu” in them, but am also glad they figured out how to edit. Now to the irony: the prog “revival” tends to focus on the lengthy suites favored by the hairy period of prog, rather than the pop songcraft that came with short back and sides.
David Longdon’s record Wild River fits into the song-driven, streamlined version of progressive rock circa 1980. Not to say it’s retrograde, but rather that it is essentially a pop record with a prog pedigree. Longdon, who joined Big Big Train as vocalist in 2009, has a vocal timbre very close to Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, and in fact worked with Genesis as a possible replacement for Collins in the early aughts. He did better finding Big Big Train, I think, and Genesis probably did worse in not choosing him. In the interim, Longdon produced 2004’s Wild River, a lovely collection of succinct tunes that I find expressive and joyful, light (as in luminous), and full of the twists and turns that should keep close listeners tuned in.
“Always” opens the record with a briskly fingerpicked guitar, bass, and drums, and a nice Hammond organ. Longdon’s vocal is fluid, jazzier than his closest comparisons Gabriel/Collins, and the song has “hit” written all over it. It is like Seal’s best work, and is also reminiscent of that period in the early 90s when the pendulum was swinging from both grunge and synth pop to a more organic sound championed by producers like T. Bone Burnett. The balance of the record lives up to these set expectations, with an earthy, upbeat acoustic approach brightening the songs. The sex romp of “Honey Trap” is fun, nice and hooky, darkened by the mixed emotions of the narrator. “Mandy” is where the mandolin kicks in (Mandy/mandolin?), but there is no forced quaint-ization because of it; flanked by organ, drums, and electric guitar, with a ska section in the chorus, it actually works. That said, a mandolin and an English singer always makes me think of the venerable and much-missed Ronnie Lane, who knew himself how to work these elements, and who I could see singing the hell out of this song. Thankfully, Longdon does this himself, doing justice to a tune about, as far as I can tell, the politics of relationships (nothing new, but effectively and hazily wrought). Here’s the thing: I’m one of those listeners who discerns the lyrics last — I’m just much more interested in how a song’s layers and textures fit together. I listened to this song about five times and until I wrote this review I didn’t care what the lyrics were about, it’s just a great tune, where the vocal is another instrument. Which is why I knew I was going to like this record. It works as a musical piece first, and the lyrics work as lyrics should, a combination of poetry, narrative, and tune. It’s a master working who can take a line like “You decide, my feet are on the ground,” and shape it to a melodic hook. “About Time” adds strings and a creeping dissonance, again with a short ska section in the chorus (and again effectively done — this is not a worn device). While comparisons fall short, I see a certain Nick Drake angle working here, with Bryan Ferry looking on. The Englishness, in other words, is more than apparent, but that’s what this music is, and it works. “Vertigo” boasts the line, “Vertigo, look out below, all my surroundings are spinning around, must be the masochist in me that wants another chance.” I find this compelling rather than precious, and the arrangement is so variegated that I’m shaking my head: this is a pop tune. Broadway should be knocking at Longdon’s door, but he’s better than that, I think. His are not vocal gymnastics for the sake of impressive technique. He serves his songs. And that’s perhaps what makes this album transcend. To reference Bryan Ferry again, Longdon has the similar ability to create a soundscape that centers on his vocal but doesn’t depend on it solely. The mid-paced title track sets the tone for the record and is its literal centrepiece. “Life is a wild river, not a low cut stream, and I need to believe, I need to hang on, to hold on to someone,” Longdon sings, his British R&B working a ground often neglected since the death of Dusty Springfield. It works as the album’s middle piece, and the followup track, “Loving and Giving,” is reflective, slowing the pace further. But with “In Essence” the valley is crossed, the ground rises and the pace picks back up. This is album crafting, and “This House” rocks out, harmonica hitting a soul note with a bullet mic vocal treatment and dirty guitar giving the lie to wallowing in one’s self-pity. “This house doesn’t feel like a home anymore” might read like a pop-psych platitude, but Longdon sings it like the universal sentiment it can be, tapping into a commonality we can all relate to. “Joely” goes to guitar and string quartet, with a hoedown fiddle, profiling what I imagine is a young woman whose life has gotten away from her: “Joely, the world’s your oyster, Take a knife, open the shell, and sever the creature.” How can this sound so good? But it does. Progress. And then the spoken poem at the end…. Poetry. Narrative. Tune. “Falling Down” follows, with a rubbery bass and a Gabriel-esque delivery, balances holding on to the past with working towards the future. This may be the mate to “Wild River,” urging onward in the face of history — “I can’t say I’m not dissapointed,” Longdon sings, and I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this some of the time — dashed expectations happen, they don’t have to define our lives, but they’re there. The final track, “On to the Headland,” is an optimistic last salvo, solo guitar and voice. Lighters up, please. We’re moving forward, damn the torpedoes.
I really like this record and I’ll be presumptuous and say you should too. But be prepared to only find it on Big Big Train’s site. Not on iTunes, not at Amazon, not at Emusic. What the ?#@>???? There is no reason on earth this shouldn’t be out there. N.B. David Longdon and BBT: give it up, proggers. Great records deserve a listen.