Athlete: Vehicles & Animals

[31 May 2004]

By Richard T. Williams

Mom and Dad love him more. He exerts his independence, and is still appreciated for who he is. He has more natural talent than you, and exercises it in activities that are productive and appreciated by his audience. Life is easier for him. He earns high scores in class and on tests. He has more friends. He genuinely loves you. And though all of this can amount to monstrous resentment on your part, perhaps resulting in violent outbursts against him, you are also not immune to his many charms. Instead, you find that his presence in your life betters you.

While South London’s Athlete may not be exactly like the annoyingly perfect little brother, their debut record, Vehicles & Animals, manages both annoyance and perfection. One of the first records of the decade not to be embarrassed by exuberant melody, its frequent overzealousness and sheer commercial appeal would be entirely off-putting if it didn’t seem so casual and real. Fundamentally, Athlete have a great gift for sunny, hook-laden songs with gigantic choruses, but the songs are dressed up in enough electronic detail to give them depth without sacrificing their catchy simplicity. Almost every track includes the epic sweep of Brit-pop ancestors like Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” or Blur’s “The Universal”, but without any appropriation of classic rock clichés or lush orchestral backdrops. Although the band themselves consider the Flaming Lips and Grandaddy as models for their palatable, electro-tinged sound—a fair comparison, as the songs always take precedence over their sonic contexts, but obvious care has gone into both aspects—the wannabe-Oasis climate out of which the band emerged in the late ‘90s is still fairly evident. This climate is detailed in one of the album’s older tracks, “Westside”, which originally appeared on the band’s first EP two years ago. After the jubilant unison announcement of “Chorus!”, the band sing, “Whenever you look you can see that everybody wants to be part of the rock scene”. And though they repeat this line a dozen times, the music never feels repetitive, an important distinction in all of Athlete’s music.

Elsewhere, the band could be the younger siblings of Super Furry Animals, though perhaps without the maddening genre-blender. “One Million” demonstrates shades of a ‘70s FM-radio blandness, but is saved by its marvelous extended coda, which finds the easy, laidback melody suddenly engulfed in erratic techno drum patterns and a deep bass throb. “Beautiful” may contain the biggest pop hooks of the record, with a chorus that is wholly inescapable for days at a time, but its contrastingly low-key verses reveal the hidden indie band within, as singer Joel Pott is supported only by a light guitar squiggle and some looped effects. At times he sounds a bit like the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, which is further evident on the higher notes of “Shake Those Windows”. Pott, also the guitarist, is not always the focus of the band. “Le Casio” has a brief vocal, yet it predictably lingers on Tim Wanstall’s keyboards, closing the album in a notably less sing-along manner. The U.S. edition of the album, released a year after its U.K. counterpart, also features a brief, throwaway B-side, “A Few Differences”.

An album like this, predominantly developed for carefree listening, often sacrifices substantial meaning, and Vehicles & Animals is no exception. The jaunty standout single “You Got the Style” supposedly has something to do with the 2001 race riots that occurred outside of Manchester, but it contains little evidence to support this (“Oh it’s getting hot in here / There must be something in the atmosphere / Oh I could be laughing about it / And making the most of the true British climate”). Meanwhile, “New Project” may be the only pop song ever to make a case for religious tolerance without declaring any sort of religious affiliation (“Imagine he’s all you’ve got / Imagine this is all you have come across”), but its timidity toward making a statement injures its sophistication. Though there may be no place for heavy issues on a record so bright, its emptiness does indicate that Athlete still have some growing up to do.

And once your perfect little brother grows up, you’ll forget why you resented him in the first place.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/athlete-vehicles/