After the debacle that was the making of 1982's Groovy Decay, Robyn Hitchcock briefly retired from music, and when he returned it was with an album that offered a thoroughly uncompromised vision of Hitchcock's imagination. Released in 1984, I Often Dream of Trains was a primarily acoustic set with Hitchcock handling nearly all the instruments and vocals by himself; the tone is spare compared to the full-on rock & roll of his recordings with the Soft Boys or his solo debut, Black Snake Diamond Role, but the curious beauty of Hitchcock's melodies is every bit as striking in these stripped-down sessions, and the surreal imagery of "Flavour of Night," "Trams of Old London," and the title song comes to vivid and enchanting life. Hitchcock's off-kilter wit has rarely been as effective as it is on this album; the jaunty harmonies of "Uncorrected Personality Traits" are the ideal complement for the song's psychobabble, "Sounds Great When You're Dead" manages to be funny and a bit disturbing at once, and the drunken campfire singalong of "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus" was joyously sloppy enough to inspire a cover by the Replacements.
There’s something special about this version of Different Trains. It’s the one commissioned by Wolfgang Sawallisch and David Robertson and their respective orchestras (Philadelphia and Lyon) in 2001 for string orchestra, and it impresses immediately by the richness of its vastly expanded sound palette. Though it may be heresy to say so, I never found the original string quartet version entirely convincing. This recording shows why: inside that frenetic chamber work was a much larger piece trying to get out, and here it is, fully realised, as it were, in glorious technicolor.
The hook for this terrific recording of three of Steve Reich's most attractive works is the use of alternate versions of the several pieces that differ from the original recordings on Nonesuch. This recording has Reich's imprimatur; he enthusiastically recommends the performances in a program note. The most radical departure from the original version is Piano Counterpoint, Vincent Corver's arrangement of Six Pianos for a single live pianist with the other five parts prerecorded. This allows the piece to fit nicely into Reich's "Counterpoint" series, which includes Vermont Counterpoint for flutes and New York Counterpoint for clarinets. Corver also speeds up the tempo so the piece has an even more propulsive aural energy, although in live performance it's hard to beat the visceral excitement of six pianists on-stage. The London Steve Reich Ensemble version of the Triple Quartet, unlike the Kronos Quartet's premiere recording, uses three live quartets, and is one of three performance options that Reich specified in the score, the third being an orchestral version with 36 players. This is the first commercial recording of this version.