Travis - Ode to J. Smith
Alisha Ahmed 06/10/2008
The deal with the business of music nowadays is that the big division between genres lately has been simplistically reduced to two big adjectives: 'pop' referring to everything that's easy to listen to, and 'indie' which, seems to have to sound rough and almost too edgy to be widely appreciated. If this whole concept is applied to Scottish band Travis, it's easy to see how in the last few years their ability to be too pleasant-to-the-ears has been the reason for their rise to pop fame and then their lack of indie cool and so downfall.
But their sixth album, Ode To J. Smith, disregards any of today's way to classify music, because even if the strongly guitar-driven sound might lead the listener to address it as indie, the fact that all the songs on it are quite easy to like on first listening has also got to be taken into account. Following the style of the J. Smith EP, which anticipated it earlier this summer, this album is set to be part of the 'old school' rock sound, where the limelight is focused primarily on Andy Dunlop's guitar virtuosity, which this time, is the opposite of the more acoustic sound Travis have accustomed us to, and is their most prominent feature since their debut album Good Feeling in 1997.
As for the lyrics, the style has switched from supposedly autobiographical and totally Fran Healy driven, to a storytelling mode with shared writing duties between Healy, Dunlop and Payne, where the meaning of 'you' and 'I' will therefore require an effort from the listener to be redefined from the natural way they used to be deciphered. I've come to look at the 11 songs on Ode to J. Smith as voluntarily faceless characters - in line with the character name in the title - that anyone can stick their own picture onto, giving them the meanings and identities the listener prefers.
There are songs on this album which really are bright stars, almost making me think that they're not doing justice to the others on the tracklist. Chinese Blues and Long Way Down are such brights stars to me. The drums in Chinese Blues make it one of the best album openers ever - its piano line manages to sound friendly enough to make you like it from the first listening. Long Way Down, goes along a rather unusual sound pattern that, by the end, turns its time signature from 4/4 to a waltz-y 3/4, a sound trait that's pleasantly clever.
But the true epic moments are reached in what Travis have wisely set as a crescendo in a Grand Finale, choosing to put Song to Self and Before You Were Young as the closing tracks of the album. Listening to them back to back is really quite an emotional experience. Song to Self is probably the track that will turn it all around for this album, the moment it will be out as a single. From the first listen, no one can be mistaken: all its sound layers and harmonic sounds, based on such a brilliant bass line, make it easy to see how it was born to be a lead single. And what's truly great about this song is how it manages to combine a pleasing sound with such a clever and unusual song structure, in its middle-8 and drum pattern. The true star is Before You Were Young, with its piano line and verse-melody going much alike some sort of calm yet sad carillon, making the sadness, but also the strength, explode during the chorus which gets introduced by a massive gong-sound. Even if no true love song is featured in Ode To J. Smith, questions may arise about what kind of strong feelings and stories might be behind such lyrics for these two closing songs, and the way they're given directions by the music.
This record knows quiet and knows thunder. But I wouldn't be surprised if most people holding a copy of the 1999 acclaimed album The Man Who would be unpleasantly surprised by this new record. This is because Travis' sound has developed in new directions, and this record shows their maturity and courage. But at the same time, this new sound of theirs requires and expects the same kind of development from their listeners as well. They've grown past the concept of a band being just like a brand, representative of its established sound. With this record, they're spanning on a much larger scale, much beyond the mellow melodies and acoustic sounds that might have been linked to them in the past. Even the voice of Healy has become edgy in a way that cannot be much of a link to their past sound.
In a world of music when the usual thing is to make comparisons with other bands, resulting in styles and sounds going in circles, Travis have proved to be different and they've taken on (and won) the ultimate challenge: with Ode to J. Smith, they've grown and matured past their own selves, which is probably the most difficult, yet only, thing for a musician to do, in order to really grow. Beware of any comparisons, Travis have set their own goal to be just themselves, uniquely so, and here it is achieved.