Rick’s Quick Takes for January

Big Big Train, Welcome to the Planet: Yet another stellar addition to BBT’s discography, their latest effort consolidates the widened horizons of Grand Tour and the intimate subjects of Common Ground, casting an epic light on the everyday glory of family, community, love and loss. With Nick D’Virgilio, Rikard Sjöblom, new guitarist Dave Foster and new keyboardist Carly Bryant all involved in the writing, rockers like “Made of Sunshine” and “The Connection Plan” hit with maximum impact; ballads like “Capitoline Venus” and “Oak and Stone” are masterfully expressive; instrumentals like “A Room with No Ceiling” and “Bats in the Belfry” unleash the requisite nifty twists and turns — not forgetting less easily classified delights like the multi-sectioned “Lanterna” and the woozy dreamland wash of the title track. Throughout, Greg Spawton’s firm hand on the tiller and the late David Longdon’s vocal authority are rock solid, their partnership the beating heart of this music. In the wake of Longdon’s untimely passing, we can’t know if Welcome to the Planet is the last stop on Big Big Train’s journey or a way station before what might come next. But such considerations pale in the face of what we’ve been given; this one — easily my favorite BBT effort since the English Electric days — is a real thing of beauty, an album to be treasured and listened to again and again. (Check out Bryan Morey’s detailed review here.)

Can, Live in Brighton 1975: Seven years into their ongoing project — melding their experiences from cutting-edge classical, free jazz and psychedelia into a spontaneous, rock-based amalgam — these pioneers of krautrock were laying out European audiences on a regular basis with unbridled evenings of collective improvisation. Live in Brighton, the second in a series of archival concert recordings curated by organist and sole surviving Can member Irmin Schmidt, captures the German quartet finding the music as it coalesces from thin air, then strapping in for the ride. Guitarist Michael Karoli heats up the exploratory beginning with his unique textures and spindly, Hendrixian lead lines, but when the extraordinary drummer Jaki Liebezeit locks into a high-energy trance groove with Holger Czukay’s monstrous fuzz bass on track 4, Can heads for the stratosphere and never looks back. As Karoli and Schmidt slather arresting, abstract colors over the relentless, hammering beat, fragments from the band’s studio albums are tantalizingly referenced — only to be turned inside out, stripped down, ripped apart, reshaped into fresh material. Almost a lost art in rock, this is long-form composition in real time by masters of the craft, fascinating as it gathers itself, irresistible once its momentum grabs hold of you.

Elvis Costello & The Imposters, The Boy Named If: Costello’s recent efforts have been as all over the place as usual, leaping from the sprightly pop of Look Now to the eclectic experiments of Hey Clockface. Musically, the Imposters conjure up an exhilarating blast of New Wave energy this time around — Pete Thomas’ slamming drums, Steve Nieve’s cheesily grandiloquent keyboards and Davey Faragher’s dive-bomb bass are all gleefully present and correct. And while Costello’s melodies and lyrical wordplay are as sophisticated as ever, this time around his compulsive vocal delivery and unhinged guitar adds the perfect amount of punk panache to the proceedings. Uptempo ravers (“Farewell OK,” Magnificent Hurt”), midtempo musical theatre scenarios (“The Man You Love to Hate,” “Trick Out the Truth”), downtempo tales of heartache (“Paint the Red Rose Blue,” “My Most Beautiful Mistake”) — it all connects, with each song on the album exhibiting a riveting, gnarly majesty! Highly recommended.

Renaissance, Scheherazade and Other Stories: Unquestionably the British progressive-folk-rockers’ commercial highlight (it cracked the US Top 50 and facilitated concerts backed by full orchestras for years to come), Renaissance’s fourth album with their classic line-up is a jewel in its own right. Annie Haslam’s cut-glass soprano glides effortlessly over John Tout’s bravura piano, Jon Camp’s arresting lead bass and the pulsing rhythmic beds of Michael Dunford (acoustic guitar) and Terry Sullivan (drums). The brooding multi-part opener “A Trip to the Fair,” the uptempo kiss-off “The Vultures Fly High” and the mournful elegy “Ocean Gypsy” are all lovely tracks. But the side-long “Song of Scheherazade” is the real winner here — exploding with exotic orchestral color, leaning into Renaissance’s crush on the French and Russian side of the classical tradition, as love and 1,001 nights of stories conquer the hardest of hearts. As always, Esoteric Recordings amp up the value to this latest reissue, adding a fine British live show plus a DVD with a surround mix and a promo film of the band. I still maintain that Live at Carnegie Hall is the perfect introduction to Renaissance — but this isn’t far behind.

Markus Reuter, Truce 2: What was I saying about the lost art of rock improvisation? Here’s the sequel to touch guitarist Reuter’s 2020 barn-burner, every bit as incendiary as the original — with a heaping helping of anarchy stirred in! Shaped by the emotional rollercoaster of the pandemic years and the self-reflection that followed, everything from Reuter’s angular solos and discordant soundscape backings through Fabio Trentini’s muscular, bubbling bass lines to Asif Sirkis’ full-on percussive attack is raunchier, looser, more jagged and even less predictable. Opener “The Rake” and “Barren” are all tension, the spacious “Consolation” and the funk-tinged “River of Things” are all release; the extended “Melomania” and closer “One Cut Suffices” glide between the two states with feral abandon. Both in the moment of listening and on further reflection, this is breathtaking, audacious stuff, stretching the power trio conception even further into exhilarating new territory. Kudos as always to MoonJune Records impresario Leonardo Pavkovic for bringing Reuter, Trentini and Sirkis together — then just letting them let it rip!

— Rick Krueger

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