Written by: Sherryn Daniel, Special to CC2K
An uneven, if ambitious, effort.
Ok! Magazine and the BBC are saying that this is the best album that Travis has ever recorded. After hearing each track multiple times, I can partially agree, but Ode to J. Smith is seriously uneven. The album may have some buoyant tracks, including “Something Anything” and “Get Up,” but it doesn’t have that same melancholy from Travis’ fourth album “12 Memories” that has given the band cult status and endeared them to fans.
Singer/Songwriter Fran Healey wanted to record the album in two weeks following the inspiring speed of their recent session with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. The fast pace and simplicity of the lyrics in most of the tunes will not bore any listeners, but some tracks lack the substantiality of previous offerings that were not recorded under a gimmicky timeline.
Speedy recording can breed slovenly songwriting or spontaneity, neither of which are automatically pluses for a band that has an established, deliberate sound. I get that each song on the album is about anonymous people, but what I don’t understand is the origins of the operetta twang towards the end of the song “J. Smith?” It sounds forced and repetitive, an aping of U2’s style of adding dramatic, rising beats and choruses to liven up their own basic song structures.
I cannot fault a band for wanting to grow and move its sound in a different direction, but with Travis, the appeal has always been in the soul-wrenching lyrics and moody instrumentation. The only song that seems to have the same lyrical theatrics, steady beats and a gush of instrumentals from their past albums is “Song to Self,” which describes the hardships of loneliness—typical and welcome Travis territory. In short, it’s a wallflower song and would feel right at home among the best of the band’s previous work.
Ode to J. Smith may be a reviewer’s favorite but it doesn’t have the staying power of 12 Memories or The Invisible Band. I know I will remember “Re-Offender” and “Side,” but I don’t know if the single, “Something Anything,” will be in my iTune’s top 10 at the end of the week. Part of the problem is the uneven and whimsical style at work here, and the rest of this album’s failings can be chalked up to a near-total abandonment of what worked so well on previous offerings, proving ingratiating to the wallflowers and poets-in-waiting among us.