Given that Samuel Smiles was almost exclusively a live proposition for many years, it's little surprise that the band's second album was recorded at a date in Cambridge in December 1999. Just the four members, no guests, and, as the liner notes say in an open nod to a classic claim on any number of '70s live releases, "no overdubs." Engineer Toby Mills does a great job capturing the blend of vocal intimacy and musical subtlety evident on World of Bright Futures, though, of course, it's the band's own performance which allows that to happen in the first case. Bowness' way around understated but palpable passion once again succeeds eloquently, while the band members' performances similarly sparkle. Clifford in particular gets to shine -- it's a veritable relief to hear saxophone being played in a way that's atmospheric and accessible without sounding like soppy, VH1-friendly bizjazz. In another happy move, there are few track duplications with World of Bright Futures, making this more than simply hearing the songs over again in a live context. What songs do appear do get great reads, though -- "(Watching) Over Me," with some fantastic Bearpark soloing, and "World of Bright Futures" itself, all four performers hitting some amazing heights, are two particular standouts. In an interesting nod to Bearpark and Bowness' other work, "Bottleneck," originally recorded and released by Darkroom, gets the Samuel Smiles treatment here, as does "Brightest Blue," a cut from Flame, Bowness' record with Richard Barbieri. One of Bowness' musical forebears gets saluted not once but twice -- Nick Drake, whose "Fly" and "Black Eyed Dog" get fine covers. The first softly blends into a hypnotic glaze of electric guitar and piano, which evolves into a gripping take on the latter, full of tension and mystery enough to rival the riveting, Jarboe-sung World of Skin version.
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AllMusic Review by Ned Raggett