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Just to keep believing.

October 23, 2009

Fran Healy and Andy Dunlop of Travis are doing an acoustic show at the Majestic here in Madison tonight.

I’ve opted to go to this show, but I must tell you it’s been one hell of a dilemma for me when it came to the question of buying the ticket.

I know what you’re thinking — “Oh, for Christ’s sake, what’s the big issue?” — but, see, with Travis, I’ve been highly judgmental and critical since 2001. And the thing is, the year before, they were well positioned to go down as one of my all time favorite bands.

I know I’ve broached this topic before on this blog, but the shimmering brilliance of 1999’s The Man Who and the care-free bombast of their debut, 1997’s Good Feeling poised the band to be the next big thing in the UK and with an arsenal of nice melodies, big choruses and a self-deprecating and good-natured frontman, they seem well-positioned to hold the mantle for as long as they damn well pleased.

The vacuum created by the death of Britpop in August 1997 and Oasis’ ensuing three-year exile from the studio left the door open to anyone with a healthy knowledge of a few chords and an ear for a fist-in-the-air chorus, and Travis had both. What’s more, the refined and moody The Man Who SOUNDED like a band who’d studied Oasis B-sides and knew what the healthy masses of arena rock fans really yearned for. You need the transition from “All I Want to Do is Rock” to “Writing to Reach You,” dammit, because even if you’re a teenager with an overdeveloped taste for beer and a proclivity to use the phrase “Aw, f*ck off” a little too often — you’re still sensitive and (somewhat) deep too, dammit.

And if Oasis weren’t delivering “Talk Tonight”s or “Half the World Away”s to satiate that other side and Radiohead had all but given up that muse after 1995’s The Bends, well, who was gonna do it? Travis answered the call and was paid in spades.

And maybe through no fault of their own, everyone caught wind of just how easy that kind of songwriting was. Indie sensitivity gave birth to an entire range of emotive Brits from the intriguing (Badly Drawn Boy) to the obvious pretenders (Starsailor), and in their undying quest to identify the next big thing, British magazines lauded praise on everyone and everyone in between as if they were to be the next Beatles.

Travis could have enjoyed their time as shepherds of the movement, but the thing is a pesky little band called Coldplay released Parachutes in 2000 and posed a serious threat to Travis. Not so much because they had the tunes to match Travis’ power, but because people in America were taking a serious listen to “Yellow” and “Trouble.”

For Travis, the UK was a cakewalk. In 2000, they were festival headliners, enjoyed massive chart time and were actually lauded for tongue-in-cheek B-sides like an acoustic rendering of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.” But outside of Anglophiles, Americans weren’t paying too much attention to them outside of enjoying “Why Does it Always Rain On Me?” every time it popped up on the radio. Travis put the time in to cracking in America. They supported Oasis on the US leg of the Standing on the Shoulder of Giants tour and I can distinctly remember seeing them as headliners in small Chicago clubs three times in the span of a year. The clubs never got MUCH bigger, but the sense was that all this work was going to pay off for something.

So imagine another British band with a big heady song about a color basically taking your template and strutting right into America’s heart. I was not there to witness it, but I have no trouble whatsoever imagining four Scottish dudes muttering, “Motherf*cker…”

And for years, interviewers went after Fran Healy and Chris Martin, both playing up their friendship and lauding each other, but one has to imagine it was a pretty easy PR option for Martin whose band was well on its way to U2-sized popularity, while Healy’s band was visibly set adrift by the Coldplay swell.

First there was 2001’s The Invisible Band, which was a decent record, but an outright rewrite of The Man Who, that seemed to scream, “Look, we were here first, we’ve been doing this, check the last album, dammit.” Then they got a bit more bitter and moody with 2003’s 12 Memories. I’m sure the video for “Re-Offender” was done somewhat tongue in cheek, but you have to think there was some truth in the jesting.

In 2007, they release The Boy With No Name, which was another pretty transparent grab at stoking nearly decade-old fire from The Man Who. The diehards loved it, but they didn’t generate new fans, so they decided to strip down and go rocky again for last year, Ode to J. Smith, which — all told — produced one really good song.

As a fan of the band (I honestly don’t root against them, you know), it’s hard not to listen and think they’re still conscious of being in competition with Coldplay. I wish they didn’t care so much, because despite the escalating ticket sales (and prices), Coldplay’s music has gotten worse since Parachutes.

But I suppose the best analogy (and any male who was a fan of Travis in 1999 or 2000 will appreciate this analogy) is warming up a girl for a relationship by going the “friendship” route she insists upon because she doesn’t want to ruin that special bond. So you work at the friendship line for weeks, months, hell, maybe years. You spend time together, you tell each your thoughts that you don’t tell anyone else. You have jokes that no one else gets and while you want to scream from the mountaintops how good you would be for her and that she probably knows it, you know that any rash move like that could blow the whole operation. So you build up, and just when you’re about to make the small-but-firm move to push things to the next level, some guy who looks just like you comes in with a mix tape and is cocksure enough to get a date.

F*ck that guy, right? He’s scoring off all the priming you did, and is it going to send you into a jealous fit? Yeah. Are you gonna go off with some girl you probably never would have otherwise? Yeah, probably, because you don’t know what else to do.

I mean, hell, why do you think early on in the American version of “The Office,” it was Travis’ “Sing” that Pam and Jim were listening to on shared iPod headphones that night in the parking lot? Travis is the culmination of that kind of “almost” frustration.

And as a fan that damn near wore out the “Coming Around” single in 2000, well, I’m still waiting for the care-free album for which that tune should have been the trailer. It’s been almost a decade.

But to say that everything in the past 9 years has been subpar would be unfair. And for this month’s Friday Five, let’s celebrate the diamonds in that multi-year rough.

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The Friday Five
Travis’ post-big time moments of glory

Travis – Somewhere Else
The best tune from the moody 12 Memories, and while it warms the cockles of my heart that they never put this one out as a single, part of me wonders what kind of popularity the never-issued single missed out on. This song is arguably the best thing they ever wrote, and to end up as a deep cut on the album that would become forever known as “the low-selling one” seems a little criminal. But it’s also good to know you can pick up the album with a bad rap, work your way through it and find an absolute gem like this. No matter how inconsistent their albums may be, there’s always going to be one cut that floors you.

Travis – Walking in the Sun
The obligatory “new” cut for 2004’s greatest hits compilation Singles. Put up alongside the songs that made them as big as they were at the turn of the century, this cuts fits in beautifully with the nicely balanced electric and acoustic guitar interplay and a gorgeous little chorus that burrows itself comfortably into your head for a long time after listening.

Travis – My Eyes
Given The Boy With No Name‘s conscious similarities to The Man Who (and The Invisible Band), I actually think it’s a big compliment to say this is really the only song on the album that sounds like it could have fit on The Man Who (and let’s not kid ourselves, “Selfish Jean” is great, but that would have been a killer Man Who-era B-side, a la “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” or “High as a Kite”). The fatherhood theme was already tackled with “Flowers in the Window,” but this one works a bit more effectively and the “Welcome in, welcome in” bridge is just solid gold.  This one did make it out as a single, but I think the choice in making the cookie-cutter “Closer” the first single (Ben Stiller staring video and all) probably quelled a few expectations. Ah well.

Travis – Lovely Rita
Given the country’s proclivity for celebrating musical anniversaries and pumping nearly every music magazine full of “Best British Albums EVER” lists, it’s probably no surprise that the BBC commissioned a lot of popular acts to rerecord songs from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album for a big “Wasn’t that album great?” radio documentary in summer 2007. The one question I had is why on earth that question needed to be asked, but c’est la vie. Beatles covers are dangerous waters to go treading into as 12 bands found out (even Oasis’ cover of “Within You, Without You” sounded like a bit of a train wreck), but lo and behold, Travis were the only ones to hit it out of the park with a to-the-detail faithful cover of one of the album’s most underrated songs (even down to employing the comb and paper). Watching this video in 2007 reminded me how much I loved them when I was 18.

Travis – Something Anything
The aforementioned one good cut from last year’s Ode to J. Smith. I don’t doubt they still can rock and bring the balls they did on 1997’s Good Feeling — this song is proof enough. But this was the only song that merged the balls with the Travis-brand catchiness. And that’s the important difference, you know… I don’t think Coldplay could do a song like this.

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