British people may be bad cooks with poor dental hygiene, but gee whiz they can make good pop music. As if the Beatles and Rolling Stones (not to mention Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello and the Clash) weren’t enough, during the mid-90s an astonishing number of Britpop bands invaded the televisions and heads of teenagers everywhere. While bands like Oasis and the Verve have seen their heydays come and go, the Britpoppers who’ve been able to change their sound — Radiohead and Blur are the obvious examples — are as successful today as they’ve ever been. Travis’ fourth album, “12 Memories,” has marginally evolved from the sweet-vocals-over-nice-melody formula that earned them their popularity, but this is still more or less the same record they’ve been making for six years.
Fran Healy must drink eight cups of honey-drenched tea a day; his syrupy vocals are Travis’ most obvious asset. His lyrics, however, have been known to border on annoyingly cute. “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?,” from their classic “The Man Who,” is maybe the most irksome title for a pop song ever; “Sing,” from 2001’s “The Invisible Band” is even more nauseatingly cheery. This garrulousness shines through in the group’s new album on tracks like “Love Will Come Through” and “Happy Hang Around,” fine examples of how mediocre pop music can be.
But Healy’s lyricism has matured, and is often more interesting, if not darker. On “Re-Offender” he sings about spousal abuse, implicitly through his mother’s eyes: “You say you love me / And then you do it again,” the chorus goes. The record even boasts two songs against the War in Iraq, the brilliant “Beautiful Occupation” and disappointing “Peace the F*** Out.” At the end of the latter tune, an entire soccer stadium chants the song’s title, an idea wholly ripped off from Pink Floyd’s 1971 psychedelic classic “Meddle.”
Like the very similar “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” the second album from fellow Britons Coldplay, the backbone of “12 Memories” is its instrumentation. A lone cello hums under a distorted guitar on the album’s great opener, “Quicksand.” On the rest of the record, the four-piece band sounds wholly competent without any strings behind it. This is its first album without the beloved Nigel Goodrich behind the boards, and Travis sounds surprisingly good with sparse self-production. Without Goodrich’s sonic textures, the band — a guitar, bass, and drums accompanied only in a few tracks by other instruments — still sounds fine.
In the last third of the album the band falls into a rut, and the songs begin to blend into each other. “12 Memories” is saved by the last track, which is split between “Walking Down the Hill” and the unlisted “Some Sad Song.” The latter tune is the best thing I’ve heard Travis do. Over just a piano and the (cliched?) sound of rain falling, Healy sounds just gorgeous. It’s a great note to end on, especially because the album is so steeped in the acoustic and fuzz-guitars of Britpop.
Travis’ new record may not be groundbreaking, which contemporary Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” is, although that’s not the be-all and end-all of popular music. At the very worst “12 Memories” is merely nice; at its best it’s surprisingly sweet, even charming.
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