A Return to Form

The Boy With No Name (Epic)

By Kevin Gibson

When I first heard Travis' "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" several years ago, I was instantly hooked. The album that produced that song, The Man Who, led to a long fan-artist relationship on my part and led me to discover the band's first album, Good Feeling, featuring the fun and blistering track "All I Want to Do is Rock."

I traveled to Cincinnati to see them perform live and had my breath taken away, so I proceeded to buy up every high-priced import single I could get my hands on, single-handedly keeping ear X-tacy in business for a number of months (or so my bank account seemed to believe).

But after the admittedly solid The Invisible Band, I lost interest. It seemed Travis had lost its knack for writing really memorable melodies. It had turned into The Euro-Pop Band That Lost Its Way.

Things have changed.

I did a random search on YouTube a couple of months ago and came across a video for a Travis song called "Selfish Jean." I'd never heard it, so I went searching - and sure enough, a new Travis album was on music store shelves. I liked "Selfish Jean" enough that I bought the thing.

Consider me re-hooked.

The Boy With No Name (Travis has really interesting and curious album titles, don't you think?) is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of pop songs that stand up easily to Invisible and aren't too far off the quality of Man and that's high praise. Nigel Godrich is back at the helm as producer - he also produced the group's early works - which no doubt helped bring back the Travis spirit.

Front man Fran Healy presents a collection of heart-wrenching songs (as usual) that can at once lull you into a state of relaxation and also make you a bit sentimental. "Battleships," a song about the general ups and downs of being in a relationship, is a melancholy tune that actually finds a spark of upbeat earnestness much like "Driftwood" did on Man. Sure, it's sad, but something in the pop hook makes it all seem OK.

"Closer" is seemingly about wanting to find a deeper intimacy with someone who is a bit closed off. It's a nuance song, which is what makes it interesting. It's easy to write a song that says to no one in particular, "I love you." But Healy finds tiny strands of detail in relationships and emotion and focuses on them, making what should be easily dismissed love songs into memorable slices of emotion.

The aforementioned "Selfish Jean" is actually a rewrite of an older Travis song and comes on like a pop version of "Lust For Life." It's actually a bit of a "piss off" song, denouncing a former lover for generally being really bad at relationships: "Hey, you threw it all away / By holding everything in / Hey Jean, don't rock the boat / When you can't swim."

Basically, it's one of those bouncy, fun songs that you can't help but like, subject matter notwithstanding.

Another highlight is "My Eyes," which is about Healy's son. It's an outpouring about the feeling of parenthood and the wonder of what this new person might become. "You got my eyes / And we can't see what you'll be / You can't disguise / But either way I will pray / You'll be wise / Pretty soon you will see / Tears in my eyes."

For the geeks among us, there's also an untitled bonus track at the end of track 12, "New Amsterdam." Travis outtakes are always worth listening to and this is as strong as anything on the album from a melodic standpoint. (Although in fairness, the melody is strangely familiar, which may have been what relegated it to bonus track standing.)

Throughout this album, there are also exquisite string arrangements that help bring forth Healy's emotions and moods. When interspersed with his ghostly vocals and the gentle guitar (and occasional banjo) of Andy Dunlop, these songs often become mini-orchestrations. Think a slightly more mainstream Belle and Sebastian and you're getting close. Good company, indeed.

Another comparison I often make to my more mainstream friends - and bear with me here - is Coldplay. I'm no fan of Coldplay, but there are similarities thanks to Coldplay's wanna-be Brit-pop motif and to be honest about it, Travis helped pave the way for that. Anytime I hear someone gushing about the latest Coldplay song, I immediately direct him or her to Travis as an example of what they probably should be listening to.

Hmmm. Maybe I never really abandoned Travis at all - maybe it was just a much-needed break. Perhaps this will inspire Healy to write a sappy song about our unfortunate split and ultimate reunion. Until then, I'm happy to have this Scottish pop quartet back in my life.

Find out more about Travis at www.travisonline.com.