[CD Review] Travis, 'Ode to J. Smith' (Fontana)

Back in 2000, Scotland’s Travis had a hit stateside with “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” It was a pretty, catchy song rather clearly influenced by The Bends-era Radiohead. Also in 2000, fellow latter-day Brit-poppers Coldplay had a big American hit, “Yellow,” a pretty, catchy song rather clearly . . . well, you get the idea. But while Coldplay have since become bona-fide, international, rock & roll superstars with a staying power rarely seen in the current musical climate, Travis have faded into relative obscurity. Their most recent cultural impact here was the inclusion of “Writing to Reach You” in the 2004 mash-up “Boulevard of Broken Songs,” and their record sales have seen diminishing returns with each subsequent release, even on the U.K. charts.

So it’s not shocking that they’ve changed things up somewhat for their sixth studio album, Ode to J. Smith, which introduces a heavier sound than the airy pop of their past. Songs such as “J. Smith” and “Something Anything” rock harder than much of their previous material, and rather than sounding like an awkward last gasp at relevance, it’s pulled off nicely, allowing guitarist Andy Dunlop more opportunities to let loose than afforded on earlier albums. There’s no point now in trying to recapture the sound of records such as 1999’s The Man Who—a sound now clearly associated with Snow Patrol, Keane and yes, Coldplay—so a step in a different direction makes sense.

Unfortunately, it’s not much more than a step, and slower numbers such as “Broken Mirror,” despite being carried by lead singer Fran Healy’s always-rich vocals, feature neither the charm of their past successes nor the freshness of the album’s louder tunes. The end result is an album that’s good, but not great, and unlikely to move the needle on the band’s evidently declining fan base.


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