It has been 13 years since Travis’ debut album, but frontman Fran Healy just now decided to strike out on his own. And since Healy’s singer/songwriter status has been the focal point of Travis this whole time, his debut solo album Wreckorder is bound to sound a little bit like his band. But the pleasant surprise is that some of it doesn’t. A very lean album with 10 songs clocking in under 35 minutes, Wreckorder dishes out musical comfort food and tame experimentation in equal measure. As a solo project, it won’t scare away any Travis fans who might want something just the slightest bit different.
Emery Dobyns may have produced Travis’ last album Ode to J. Smith, but the approach he and Healy took to Wreckorder couldn’t be more different. Last time we heard from Travis, they recorded their new album in two weeks and it was probably the most rocking stuff they had made since their late ’90s debut. Wreckorder has far more in common with The Man Who and The Invisible Band in terms of sound. Acoustic guitars and pianos rule the roost here, a majority of these instruments being played by Fran Healy himself. The overall result is a professionally recorded yet low-key album that could have been made in someone’s home studio — and I mean that as a compliment.
The songs that sound like Travis outtakes, like the waltzing “Anything” or the Beach Boys bounce of “Fly in the Ointment”, aren’t the bright spots of Wreckorder. More interesting things happen when Healy lets out his inner Jonny Greenwood/Radiohead on the tense opener “In the Morning” and a very murky and mysterious fog of a tune found in “Shadow Boxing”. And without batting an eye, he closes the album with something far more playful than most of the songs that make it to Travis’ albums. “The cat jumped over the moonshine,” he sings on “Moonshine”, sounding like he wants all listeners to be in on the joke, whatever that might be.
Another nice thing about the solo album venture is that you can get whoever you want to help you out with it. If that means having Paul McCartney strap on his 1963 Hofner bass guitar for “As It Comes”, then so be it. A day in the life of an elderly married couple who have been together for a very long time, it’s like a less whimsical “When I’m Sixty-Four”:
I’ll never let you be lonely
As long as you’re by my side
You say you’d leave me if only
Another tear in my eye
Another funeral parlor
I’ll have to get a new tie
Tom Hobden of Noah & the Whale provides fiddle on a handful of songs — proof that when going the organic route in string accompaniment, a little goes a long way. Indie darling Neko Case also makes an appearance on “Sing Me to Sleep” providing a vocal performance that adds shading to the song rather than stealing the spotlight for herself. For all the star power that the names McCartney and Case alone carry, Wreckorder is not the least bit fractured by the diversity of the hired help, speaking volumes to the consistency of Healy and Dobyns’ recording approach.
The album’s first single, “Buttercups”, tells bittersweet story from Healy’s past. Not being able to afford nice roses from a florist, he picked buttercup flowers to give to his then-girlfriend. The romance of the gesture was lost on her, taking him for a cheapskate. Now that Travis’ lead singer/songwriter can afford to produce a fancy bouquet of a solo album, he still opts out for the personal touch. Wreckorder is a hand-picked gift reminding us that it’s the thought that counts. And to look down your nose at it would make you a snob.