The Emotionally-Inclined, Invisible Man
Bright and Cheerful, Travis Carries on Britpop TraditionBy Sandra Chung
There exists a vast contingent of American Britpop fans who aren’t content with just the Beatles Anthology. They are the people who can’t get enough of the acoustic, Dave Matthewsy Coldplay; the quirky, trendy Badly Drawn Boy; or the liquid, sometimes Foo Fighterish Doves. They clamor for obscure imported Portishead and Spacehog EPs and loudly lament the disbanding of Massive Attack and The Verve. I am one of them. I can’t bloody well eat my porridge without my longtime staples and reigning British music royalty, The Cure and Radiohead. So I leapt onto the Travis bandwagon when The Man Who, which outsold even Radiohead in 1999, was busy spawning four hit singles and the band looked to be the next big thing in Britpop.
The key to Travis’ appeal? Their music calls out to everyone’s inner child. The band members are young, with a happy-go-lucky image and hairstyles that range from Donald Duck to Bart Simpson. Singer Fran Healy’s lyrics, with tidy refrains, constant apostrophe, and guileless musings on love and life, combine with the band’s glowing instrumental work for a deliciously mellow sound, reminiscent of Radiohead circa Pablo Honey. Nearly everything about Travis smacks of a softer, happier, more carefree Radiohead.
If Radiohead’s Thom Yorke’s voice were a double espresso, Healy’s would be a hot chocolate with whipped cream. Dido’s would be a vanilla drowsy.
Their latest album, The Invisible Band, is coasting along on The Man Who’s momentum. If you're going to buy a Travis CD, you'd better start with The Man Who. Travis may be even hotter now than they were in the U.K. in 1999, but my feelings about The Invisible Band are lukewarm. My biggest beef with this edgeless album is that it threatens to play like a single hour-long song. They stray very little from the standard guitar pop sound and none of the instrumental work is particularly inspiring. You’ll hear some windchimes, everyday percussion instruments, an organ, some strings, and some keyboard work, but generally they stick to an acoustic or tame electric guitar and unremarkable bass and drums. Producer and mixer Nigel Goodrich does a straightforward and astonishingly consistent job, which unfortunately makes the band sound excessively one-dimensional and monotonous.
“Sing,” the first single, is a textbook example of what I call the Guitarist’s Girlfriend Song. Healy wrote it to help his fiancÉe overcome her reluctance to sing in front of him. Repetition and rhyme are his key persuasive techniques. Healy sings the word “sing” 43 times and makes his point with this neat rhyme: “For the love you bring won’t mean a thing unless you sing.” Yes, that’s a deftly plucked banjo in place of the rhythm guitar -- my first reason why Travis should take over the underappreciated (read: nonexistent) Scottish country music niche.
About half the songs on the album are “happy” songs. “Follow the Light,” “Side,” “Pipe Dreams,” and “Safe” reflect a self-assured, “Let it Be” attitude toward life. “Flowers in the Window” is such a blatant Beatles rip-off it should be considered a copyright violation. To spice things up a little, Travis also throws in some vaguely melancholy songs like the antisocial “Indefinitely,” which aches to be reworked into a country single, and the bitter and homicidal yet still relaxing “Last Train.”
The two bonus tracks, lumped together with “The Humpty Dumpty Love Song” in a monstrous 15-minute track, are the best on the album. “Ring Out the Bell” is a ballad from the point of view of -- you guessed it -- an angel without wings. The 6/8 meter makes me think he’s sitting on a playground swing as he sings to himself. “I’m so lonely/God won’t know me/ I can hardly get up/I sold my halo.” Healy’s voice is the star on this one-take song; it has more raw, real energy than it does on the other tracks. The electric guitar contrasts well with light xylophone and snare work.
Travis’ laid-back instrumental work meshes perfectly with the fun, ironic, old-school country sound of “You Don’t Know What I’m Like.” Healy is great on this one, too; he sings low and full with an accent like a twangy Michael Stipe (R.E.M.).
I have to give Travis a lot of credit for recording a remarkable number of consistently catchy and pleasant (though “Safe” and stuck in “The Cage”) songs with “hit single” written all over them. Certainly, music does not have to be negative to be good. The Invisible Band is a lovely, solid album, and it’s perfectly acceptable to swoon to Fran Healy’s creamy voice. Secretly, I predict they will someday grow old and cynical and change their name to Travishead. But for now, the members of Travis are quite comfortable being their positive selves, and all their songs have that infectious Britpop quality that irresistibly tempts one to sing along. That’s right, sing, sing, sing.