What is it about trains that catches the imagination of so many of my favorite guitarists? There is Ken Navarro's Dreaming of Trains, which has taken up permanent residency in my iPod, Chris Standring's song "Fast Train To Everywhere," and the mother of them all, Pat Metheny Group's "Last Train Home," which was followed by Metheny and Steve Reich's hauntingly eclectic "Different Trains." Is it that feeling of being transported, taken away from your everyday surroundings, watching the world pass by while you go to a different place? Is it that the sound of wheels on rail somehow quiets those crazy-making random thoughts? That's the undercurrent in train inspired music and Brian Hughes' latest release, Fast Train To A Quiet Place, continues on that path with a title that perfectly describes the music within.
This is an album you can put on when you want to be somewhere else. That works on two levels - it will carry you away from the everyday and into your imagination, it will also effortlessly transport you into that place beyond smooth where music becomes exciting and complex but still enjoyable and accessible. Almost all of these songs are long by today's standards, clocking in at six minutes or more. This gives the songs a chance to expand, to breathe, and it gives you time to listen deeply. It also gives this virtuoso group of musicians a chance to stretch out and do some serious playing. These improvisations are grounded in some solid melody lines that sound both familiar and fresh, with the kind of hooks that get stuck in your head and make you play the same song over and over again.
The opener, "Fast Train," is even more joyous and buoyant than the title track of his 2003 release, Along The Way. Hughes layers a his lead guitar over acoustic chords and a rhythm section that manages to blend jazz chords with Celtic undercurrents. "A Blanket of Stars" sounds and feels just like the title, graceful and comforting, even as he and keyboardist Matt Rhode lay some serious and speedy licks over this dreamy bed. Hughes' rock/jam band side comes out in full force on "Gotcha," a sizzler that reminds me of his semi-smooth hit "Stringbean" with an energy infusion. "Super Tight" follows with Hughes on electric, delivering a gritty dose of blues rock over a Rhode's Hammond B3 and "Hallelujah" is a true rock anthem with a powerful lead building to a crescendo over piano, retro-keyboard, and drums. Hughes is the guitarist and music director for Loreena McKennitt - she of the beautiful voice and global musical explorations. He brings some of those themes along too, especially in "The Gift," which sounds like a McKennitt track minus the vocals with his electric sitar lead and tablas in a haunting middle eastern setting. And there is the flamenco fusion of "Cafe Sin Nombre" where the whole band just flies into another zone - guitar, keyboard, percussion, even the drummer gets a chance to go off. There's some Wes Montgomery influenced jazzy octaves on “You and I” and a simple and lovely acoustic guitar ballad that will take you “To A Quiet Place.” It covers a lot of territory and takes you to a lot of places.
This is Hughes' ninth album, his first studio project since 2003 and the follow up to his 2007 live CD/DVD . I've adored him since his first album, Between Dusk and Dreaming, crossed my desk back in the early 90's. Part of the reason I fell in love with his music is that he managed to fill a space that Pat Metheny veers in and out of without ever imitating Metheny, and expanded that space into something original, pure and fresh. I don't think anyone else out there is doing what he is doing, certainly not with this much skill or these songwriting chops. On Fast Train To A Quiet Place he has taken the essence of everything I loved about his previous work, added a little more rock, a wider world influence and delivered some true jazz on the side. Fans will adore it, new listeners will be amazed. It took eight years for this train to pull into the station but It has been worth the wait.