- Released: 2020
- Origin: Leeds, England
- Label: Atlantic Curve
- Best Track: PRISM
Ah, I remember I Like Trains. One of many mid-’00s bands that seemed to be championed by the likes of NME one minute and forgotten the next, they could be bracketed in with British Sea Power, and later Public Service Broadcasting, in a niche of quintessentially British bands who seemed as keen to educate as to entertain.
I really liked their 2006 debut Progress Reform, featuring songs with such unlikely subject matters as the doomed Antarctica voyage of Captain Robert Scott, the troubled chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer and the despised former British Rail chairman Richard Beeching, who decision to axe over 2,000 railway stations in the 1960s looks more cynical and short-sighted by the year. It was thought of as style over substance in some quarters, and although I did think they created an impressive wall of sound in its own right, I could understand the criticism. The songs were all of a similar pace, structure and trajectory, so you felt they would need to diversify going forwards.
KOMPROMAT is the band’s first studio album in eight years (I did listen to at least one release from them between now and 2006 but it obviously wasn’t memorable enough for me to remember which one), and they do seem to have honed a more post-punk sound, with abrasive guitars and David Martin’s vocals introducing more spoken elements in the languid, stuttering style of Mark E. Smith. The sound they’ve moved towards reminds me a lot of another Leeds band, the tragically underappreciated Post War Glamour Girls. The baritone vocals are similar, as are the first-person lyrics, often with sinister undertones. Martin can’t quite match James Smith of PWGG for wordplay and turn of phrase though, often resorting to cliches (“making a purse from a sow’s ear”, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” etc.).
Still, I like the album. The haunting keyboards in ‘PRISM’ are a high spot, while ‘Patience is a Virtue’ is probably the most interesting track lyrically (“I am the chosen one/I am the redeemer/And it is worth remembering no-one voted for God either”). If “style over substance” was a fair criticism previously, the quality of songwriting on this record compensates for that to the point where the theme of the album (digital data and privacy) could easily be missed without careful listening.
The theme is most apparent on final track ‘Eyes to the Left’, where guest vocalist Anika’s spoken words sound part computerised, part Thatcher-esque, as her rhetoric questions are delivered in a gentle but taunting tone. I sense it’s a letter from machine to man (“I took your job”), responded to with Martin’s defensive protest (“I saw it coming, I could do nothing at all about it”). A powerful and unsettling closer.
I Like Trains have never been a one-trick pony, and this album deserves further listening.