Travis

The Man Who
(Epic)

You wouldn't be to blame if you avoided Travis simply because it's the latest in a long line of U.K. bands being hyped as the "next big thing." Yeah, yeah, it was a No. 1 in Britain, big deal. But you'd be missing out on one of the best records of the year. The Man Who is the most unexpectedly accomplished sophomore record in recent memory. Dropping its Oasis-wanna-be pretensions, Travis has fashioned an album full of warm, soft and, occasionally, dark pop songs. It would be easy to characterize this as the best record Radiohead didn't make this year -- the chiming guitars and chug-chug bass of the opener, "Writing to Reach You," ebb and flow in sort of a "Paranoid Android" way, only much sadder -- but Travis is very much its own band and one that's decided to trumpet earnestness over any retro-rock pretenses. Sure, there's a lot of Radiohead (minus the Pink Floyd/prog rock element) -- but there's also some of the big ambitions of Joshua Tree-era U2, as well as some glam tendencies. Singer Fran Healy emotes on a par with the dynamics even as Nigel Godrich's (Beck, Radiohead) production builds the songs into mini-epics of living room-closeness.

"Reach You" is a seesaw that goes up on big beats and clanging chords and comes down with simple strumming and vocals. Throughout, Healy wears his heart in his throat, exposing his frailty even if the music isn't always delicate. The band relies on acoustic guitars for the main thrust and only allows the electrics to shimmer across the surface of songs.

The band has a delicate touch -- even when letting the floodgates of guitars open now and then -- which lets it delve into other styles without losing its identity. Similarly, the swirl of keyboards and jangled guitars that close out "The Fear" give it a space rock edge without taking the song into the stratosphere. And those are just the first two tracks.

The hit U.K. singles "Driftwood" and "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" highlight the differences in our two cultures. "Driftwood" is a mellow, acoustic-tinged rock song, while "Rain" updates the bouncing beat of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" with strings. Neither song stands much chance of breaking through the airwaves here, because there isn't anything artificial or contrived about them. No carefully packaged imagery, no dance-routine videos, just four guys and four chords.

The record has problems, to be sure: The falsetto vocals of "The Last Laugh of the Laughter" nearly sink the piano-heavy number, and Healy's moan is, at times, a bit too much like Radiohead singer Thom Yorke's, while the back-to-back ballads "Luv" and "She's So Strange" slow the pace down some toward the end. But these are relatively minor complaints. Otherwise, it's simply lovely, despite the hype.

 
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