One of my musical hot takes is that whenever possible, it’s worth listening to a band live before hearing their studio recordings. Most people find this counterintuitive: You go see a band live if you’ve already decided you like their recorded music, because live music is much more of an investment. When you listen to a studio track, you know that it will have a clear beginning and end, and typically won’t last more than about five minutes.
Who knows where a live track will go? There’s a sense that live music is reserved for fans of an act, who can compare and contrast the live version with the recording, and enjoy the novelty of hearing a slightly different version of a song they already love. But live music can also be better than studio music for giving listeners a sense of what a band is all about. That’s the case with Live at Bush Hall, the latest release from the British band Black Country, New Road—a great introduction to a band in a new stage of its career.
BC,NR is from Cambridge, and as you might expect from a band that has a comma in their name and drew their name from a random Wikipedia generator, is a bit artsy. They’re part of the “post-Brexit new wave” of British music, described as a sort of post-punk that puts heavy emphasis on David Byrne-like sing-talking. This is the band’s first album without vocalist Isaac Wood, who left the group citing mental health needs. That leaves three of the group’s multi-instrumentalists—bassist Tyler Hyde, keyboardist May Kershaw, and saxophonist/flutist Lewis Evans—taking up the main mics. The other three members also sing up backup vocals.
Bush Hall comes with not one but several backstories, which the group documents in an hourlong YouTube video of the album, recorded over three nights. “A council of farmers gather for their quarterly summit.” When The Whistle Thins. I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts. The Taming of The School. This might sound a bit twee, and it is. But any saccharine sense fades away when you hear how talented they are.
“The Boy,” the album’s second track, can give a listener a sense of what they’re in for here. “The Boy” is split into three chapters, helpfully announced by May Kershaw, and concerns itself with the affairs of robins, hedgehogs, deer, and an assortment of other animals. A robin starts to become obsessed with a human boy she sees one day: “wanting the boy / wanting the boy / wanting the boy,” she repeats.
The music is at turns intricate and sweeping. What makes a BC,NR song so enchanting is hearing its rise and fall, how strands of music coalesce into something that feels monumental, like at the four-minute mark of “Laughing Song,” or the album’s highlight, the nearly 10-minute “Turbines/Pigs.” Starting with just a piano, it rises into a cacophony of sound and fury.
Not everything works. Evans, in particular, doesn’t quite have the vocal range for some of his songs, like a lovely story of American romance in “Across the Pond Friend.” But the bumpy moments are worth sticking through. This is a band discovering themselves again, and letting it all out on display. It’s a fantastic document of a moment in time and a fascinating listen.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.