Over the course of four excellent (in the case of The Last Bright Light, I'd go so far as to say classic) albums, Mostly Autumn have demonstrated an uncanny knack for writing beautifully melodic music and heartfelt, deeply personal lyrics. I would describe their sound as very British, melding the drama of Pink Floyd and Genesis with the electric folk of a Fairport Convention and a touch of Blackmore's Night medieval mysticism.
Passengers is the fifth studio album and I think it will really polarize the fans. In fact, gone is much of the Celtic sound in place of something that can only be described as…well…American. It's as if the British folk influences were replaced with a sound similar to the Nicks/Buckingham era Fleetwood Mac. The songs are more concise and the progressive rock arrangements largely given over to something that sounds as if they are designed to appeal to a classic rock crowd. Not until the sixth track, "Simple Ways", do we really get much of the old Mostly Autumn sound.
The good news is that Heather Findlay is writing and singing more on the new CD. She has a wonderful voice and really knows how to tug on those heartstrings. Her performance on "First Thought" and the title track is enough to give anyone goose bumps. Lead guitarist/vocalist Bryan Josh plays and sings in a style highly reminiscent of David Gilmour. He's also a very good songwriter and has written some real gems here, particularly the epic closer "Pass the Clock" as well as the aforementioned title track. Unfortunately, keyboardist Iain Jennings and flautist Angela Goldthorpe are merely left with supporting roles. Whereas their contributions have previously been so crucial to the Mostly Autumn sound, they're now generally relegated to atmospheric colorings. There are no Celtic jig instrumentals anymore, which is where Goldthorpe in particular really excelled. The only instrumental is "Distant Train" which is pleasant but nothing terribly engaging.
Despite my misgivings, I still like this CD. The first five tracks are mainly four minute likeable rock sings with proggy embellishments. "Bitterness Burnt" is really a lovely track that Findlay dedicates to her recently deceased father. "Answer the Question" contains great singing and playing and I love the emotional musical climax of the song.
Passengers finds Mostly Autumn at a sort of transitional stage. Think of this as the band's Holidays in Eden or And Then There Were Three. It's a very solid CD and at times it's just as moving as anything they've ever done. But I admit to missing their epic medieval take on progressive rock. They've always included a few commercial rockers and ballads on their albums, but here the ratio is arguably a bit too high. I'm conscious of the fact that my review sounds like it's flip flopping. I don't want to turn anybody off to this CD because I do enjoy it. But it's a little different from what has come before. I think my expectations have been a little too high after the unforgettable The Last Bright Light album.
I think you can only order this from the band's website for now. For a limited time, you can get the special edition version of Passengers, which includes in a slipcase, the CD proper plus an official bootleg of Mostly Autumn live at the Canterbury Fayre from summer of 2002. The sound quality on the live CD is very good and it will give the newcomer a good idea of what Mostly Autumn sound like when they prog out more.