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Review: The Left Banke - "Strangers on a Train"

Expanded edition of the revered band's 1986 reunion album is released on CD for the first time
The-Left-Banke-Strangers-on-a-Train

The Left Banke - Strangers on a Train (Omnivore)

With stellar tunes such as the classic single "Walk Away Renée," "Pretty Ballerina" and "She May Call You Up Tonight," the Left Banke shone brightly for a brief period in 1966/1967 but flamed out by the end of the decade. Led by talented songwriter/keyboardist Michael Brown and the sweetly emotive vocals of Steve Martin, the band served as something of a template for the baroque-pop genre, but after their two LPs (Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina and The Left Banke Too) and a few one-off singles, it seemed as if the Left Banke would simply vanish into the mists of time.

Fast forward to 1986, and suddenly the Left Banke was back...well, sort of. The 10-track Strangers on a Train, mainly comprised of demos recorded by core members Steve Martin, Tom Finn and George Cameron in 1978, was released to little fanfare. (The collection was released in the UK with a different running order, cover and title—Voices Calling.) Michael Brown was nowhere to be found, although an unfounded online rumor mentioned that he was initially involved in the recording and contributes keyboards to a handful of the tracks.

Omnivore has given the mostly solid Strangers a rebirth of sorts by issuing it on CD for the first time and has upped the ante by appending six previously unreleased bonus tracks from 2001/2002 featuring Brown, Martin and Finn (all written or co-written by Brown). 

The Strangers on a Train cuts retain many of the hallmarks of the signature Left Banke sound: Martin's lovely vocals and a stirring string arrangement imbue "Lorraine" with a delicate beauty, while "I Can Fly" features another choice Martin vocal and a wonderful arrangement that is both rocking and restrained. Many of the tracks sound quite a bit like Badfinger: the title song evokes Tom Evans (particularly on the upbeat passages) and the hooky "Hold on Tight" comes off like a primo melding of Badfinger and late period ELO. Conversely, "Queen of Paradise" is a slightly funky dance number that sounds akin to what combos like Ambrosia were doing at the time. 

The bonus tracks harken back to the Left Banke's glory days and prove that the team of Brown and Martin still had much more to give: one listen to the opening strains of the gorgeous "Airborne," the piano-and-voice sweetness of the melancholy "I Don't Know," or the plaintive, ultra-romantic "Until the End," for example, and the listener is immediately transported to baroque-pop heaven. Had these tracks been recorded a decade later, a collaboration between Brown, Martin and some of the numerous younger musicians influenced by the Left Banke would have been a glorious thing (similar to Emitt Rhodes' final album). As it stands, the tracks are a wonderful addition to the Left Banke canon, and the reissued Strangers on a Train is a welcome treat. Grade: A-