One would have figured Travis and Coldplay were all we needed. Following the lead of Radiohead’s 1995 album The Bends, both bands stayed true to the more grandiose, bucolic moments from that great album, while Radiohead went off in their own wacky direction. The ever-affable Travis can always be counted on for quality singles (as their recent greatest hits compilation proves), while Coldplay has, in a short span of time, become one of the biggest rock acts on the planet. Neither band are terribly original, but they have had their share of inspired moments (“Coming Around”, “Clocks”), and ply their trade so efficiently, it’s hard not to like them. They’re good bands to have around.
While British rock has rebounded impressively with the emergence of acts such as Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Maximo Park, Battle, and The Futureheads, at the same time, we’ve been subjected to an inexplicable third wave of watered down Bends knock-offs. Snow Patrol, Keane, and Embrace all serve only one purpose: to offset the contagious energy and verve of the post-punk set by offering simpler, mellower pop rock. In the process, they’ve moved many a listener with their dulcet tones, but at the same time, have bored others to tears. Devoid of the hooks that Travis employ, and Coldplay’s crowd-pleasing, sweeping majesty, these bands are little more than lachrymose, limp-wristed imitations, wuss rock of the lowest order. The fact that Keane’s 2004 album Hopes and Fears won Best British Album at this year’s Brit Awards only goes to show these bands simply will not go away anytime soon.
To their credit, Athlete have tried to sound a little more unique than their peers, their 2004 debut Vehicles and Animals attempting a precarious balance between melodramatic crooning and eccentric pop, and while it succeeded only sporadically, the album had its moments. “Beautiful” felt like a quaint blend of Super Furry Animals and The Flaming Lips (right down to the Wayne Coyne-like vocal affectations of singer/guitarist Joel Pott), “One Million”‘s great electronic-themed coda sounded strongly inspired by Grandaddy, and “You’ve Got the Style” skillfully combined social commentary with ebullient, sunny melodies. Nothing earth-shattering, mind you, but at least the London band were making an effort to sound different.
With the release of their new album, Tourist, however, everything that made parts of their debut so endearing has been cast aside, in a desperate, depressing attempt to pander to the Keane/Snow Patrol crowd. While artists such as The Flaming Lips, Massive Attack, and Beck are being bandied about by publicists and street-teamers in describing the new record, it’s all a big ruse, as Tourist is a Coldplay clone, through and through. And not a very good one, at that.
Few albums in recent memory have inspired as much indifference in the listener as this one has, the band delivering ballad after sullen ballad, with all the energy of a severely hung-over college student. The title track is painfully bland, with that shuffling drum beat we’ve heard a thousand times before, and a chorus that apes Maroon 5’s flitty pop. “Trading Air” follows the Coldplay formula to a T, Potts’ puppydog-eyed vocal phrasing sounding more grating with every verse, while the awkward “Modern Mafia”, the album’s lone upbeat track, has all the dignity of an Adam Duritz-penned Shrek song. Most nauseatingly, “If I Found Out” dares to pull off a gimmick that always spells disaster, that of the white boy rock band backed by a gospel choir. The song itself starts out well, but whoever idea it was to stick in a choir singing “Ooh, soul,” during the bridge should never be allowed near a recording studio ever again. Nothing derails a rock album like the failed use of a gospel choir (ask The Killers), and “If I Found Out” is a spectacular failure.
Despite its many shortcomings, though, Tourist has a small handful of tracks that make the experience slightly less painful. “Chances” is the best of the blatant Coldplay imitations, getting the slow-building formula right, goofy lyrics and all (“Like the poster of Berlin on my wall/Maybe there’s a chance our walls might fall”). Arguably the album’s best track, the pleasant “Half Light”, with its catchy synth hook, gives us a tantalizing glimpse of how good Athlete can be when they’re not playing downcast soft rock crap, while both “Wires” and “Twenty Four Hours” are effective stabs at sweeping, orchestral ballads.
Athlete have shown they can be a damn good band when they want to be, but they have yet to put out a consistently good album, and with Tourist, they’ve taken a very disappointing step backwards, leaving them lumped in with the rest of the British soft rock sound-alikes. An album this irrelevant and passionless deserves to fade into oblivion.
// Notes from the Road
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