Monday, August 19, 2013

Album Review: Travis - Where You Stand

Album Rating: B
It’s hard to watch your kids move on. When Travis first made a mark on the music community nearly 20 years ago, it carved out a path for future Brit-rock torchbearers like Coldplay and Muse. But it’s 2013, and while I imagine Chris Martin is busy dreaming up his next collaboration with Rihanna, and Muse is probably drafting new ideas for its next epic Olympic theme song, the band that started it all is still more or less where it began, two decades after its beginning. It seems like the band has other things in mind, though: with its seventh album, the aptly-titled Where You Stand, Travis makes a quiet but graceful commitment to the sound it’s been honing over its entire career.

What’s most lovely about Where You Stand is how breezy it is. Whether on the gentle, melancholy “Moving,” the striking ballad "The Big Screen," or the more upbeat “Warning Sign,” every song feels like a fine fit for the band, lending the music a sense of friendliness and warmth rarely seen in the work of other Brit-rock titans. The vocals are particularly strong throughout; frontman Fran Healy finds ample room to show off his gorgeous, understated voice. This is an asset, especially when the album delves into the melancholy. “All of the things you never noticed, all of the lives you cling to, it don’t mean a thing,” he sings on the wistful “Reminder,” bringing us back to Earth but letting us down as softly as possible.

Where You Stand may be musical comfort food through and through, but it’s comfort food done with heart and nuance; nowhere is this more evident than on its title track, the best on offer here. Opening with the bright chirp of a piano note, the song soon blossoms into a graceful, winningly romantic celebration to commitment; “Lift me up or tear me down, I’ll stand right up again,” Healy sings in the second verse, drums steady as the sea building his broken heart back up. The chorus goes down like lemonade on a September afternoon, and the melody, while not quite triumphant, still soars thanks to Healy’s delivery and guitar fuzz  rising to meet his falsetto. It’s a simple, refreshing counterpoint to the genre’s recent tendencies towards grandeur and as moving a plea as any anniversary speech could be.

Admittedly, the band’s tendency to understate causes Where You Stand to stagnate sometimes, particularly when it feels like it’s stuck in its own ennui. “Another Guy” is one mildly intriguing example; the persistence of the drum and guitar rhythms suggest Travis is building up to a big, dramatic finish, but when Healy steps up to question the aforementioned other guy, it sounds less like a confrontation than a retreat. Even if the subdued emotions of the album serve a thematic point, it’s a shame the band makes it musically, too.

But when the approach works, it works well. On “New Shoes,” the hopeful title is undercut by the plop-a-dop of the synth lead and the distant echoes of programmed drum kit dragging the song's ambling narrator all around the empty city streets of London and Hollywood. The band sneaks in a subtle, poignant line about the darker realities of romance on “The Big Screen,” where the piano is as barren as Healy's wispy performance: “Life doesn’t fit on the big screen." Even as he sounds completely withered, though, he finds a sort of sturdiness that holds the song together: the same can be said for Where You Stand. What it loses in emotional intensity it more than makes up for with its honest exploration of loneliness, boredom, and the baggage that comes with getting old, a little weaker for the moment but a little wiser for your troubles. My parents tell me middle age is a curse sometimes; Travis' latest presents the uplifting idea that it’s just another phase we’ll all get through.

Artist Website

Track Listing
1. Mother
2. Moving
3. Reminder
4. Where You Stand
5. Warning Sign
6. Another Guy
7. A Different Room
8. New Shoes
9. On My Wall
10. Boxes
11. The Big Screen

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