Ode to J. Smith Import
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Ode To J. Smith by Travis is 11 tracks of their loudest, edgiest and most arresting record yet. The album was recorded at Rak Studios in London and produced by Emery Dobyns (Antony & The Johnsons, Patti Smith, Battles) and mixed at Electric Lady Studios in NY. Healy says this album was 'born out of a rush of creative urgency, a need to make a record; it has to be amazing...the most cohesive thing we've ever done. When you move so quickly, there is little time to reflect. You have to be decisive.' In 12 years, Travis has sold ten million records, numerous accolades, headlined festivals all over the world.
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The weaker-than-usual sales are an odd issue, considering that Ode To J. Smith is an interesting and mostly well-done record for the band. The sound on the record is much more aggressive and edgy than previous Travis albums, recalling classic post punk and garage rock acts such as The Ramones, as well as some newer favorites like The Strokes and The White Stripes. A restrained touch on guitar effects and the occasional haggard scream make this a fairly interesting and dynamic record, especially for a band that, like its contemporaries Coldplay and Keane, is constantly at risk of becoming just another stale adult alternative band. I think I even heard some banjo on "Last Words," which must be a first. Ode To J. Smith manages to negotiate the pitfalls of reinvention gracefully, managing to sound like classic Travis while doing something decidedly new for the band.
It's a short record, but that can be a serious boon in a time when mainstream rock albums are becoming more and more bloated with filler and extras. Better to rock out for 37 minutes than flounder for an hour, wouldn't you agree?
But after this newest release, Ode to J. Smith, I'm left feeling kind of disappointed. It's not that I dislike it, but rather, I don't love it. Usually I love everything they've put out since The Man Who. And yes, some people might complain and say they had gotten kind of mopey, sappy, over-dramatic at times, but hey, that's what I liked about them!
Ode to J. Smith is definitely way more rock, more electric, more louder than what I was expecting. I'm so-so on the first half, but at track 6 "Last Words" it starts sounding a bit more like a traditional Travis album, with a sweet banjo thrown in for good measure. I definitely liked the back half better than the first.
I've listened to it a half-dozen times now (which is made easy by the short running time) and I'm just not rah-rah-5-star-loving this, which makes me sad. Gone are the beautiful choruses, gone are the beautiful sweeping soundscapes. I'm just not sure I'm going to be listening to this several years from now like I do with most of their other albums.
Favorite songs are: "Song to Self", "Quite Free", "Before You Were Young". The rest is also very good.
So, here is "Ode To J. Smith", right on the heels of "The Boy With No Name" a year and a half ago. I'll admit this is a grower. On first listen nothing really grabbed me, but upon closer inspection, several songs began to sink their hooks into me like the album opener "Chinese Blues", "J. Smith", "Long Way Down", "Last Words", "Quite Free", "Song To Self" and "Before You Were Young". The rest I continue to struggle with just exactly how I feel about them.
The sound of this album isn't exactly a stretch for the band. In fact, they still sound maudlin and morose in too many spots. Sure there's hints of "Good Feeling" since the band utilizes more guitars this time out, but really, it's not that much like "Good Feeling".
After mulling this album over all week long, I find that "The Man Who" and "The Invisible Band" remain my favorites. "Ode To J. Smith" is neither here nor there. It's not bad, but it's not great, it just is. I keep wondering if this is it for Travis. I feel they are a talented band that could do so much more, but this is the third album in a row that has been just okay. To me, Travis have the potential to be bigger, but they don't pick great producers and engineers, and the band doesn't seem interested in trying to be more experimental with their sound. They don't seem inspired to push the limits of their particular brand of music.
And that's what makes "Ode To J. Smith" so disappointing. If they did this in two weeks, and this was the most original thing they could come up with, maybe it's time to call it quits. Sure, I noticed a small bit of experimentation on "J. Smith" with the orchestration and chorale segments, but it seemed tacked on, not well thought out. It was interesting for, oh, 30 seconds, and then it was gone.
So, I'm hoping against hope, that the next album bears better fruit. Here's where I place "Ode To J. Smith" in context of Travis's other albums.
1997 Good Feeling: Four Stars
1999 The Man Who: Four Stars
2001 The Invisible Band: Four and a Half Stars
2003 12 Memories: Two and a Half Stars
2007 The Boy With No Name: Three and a Half Stars
2008 Ode To J. Smith: Three Stars
The weird thing about "Ode to J. Smith" was that it didn't strike me as a TRAVIS album at first. Each album prior, even '12 Memories', was met with one listen being enough to say "yes, this is Travis and I love this band." "Ode to J.Smith" didn't do that for me. I had initial disappointments and said flat out that this was more or less the same, but just not as good.
But that said, the songs haunted me when they weren't being played. My ears were telling me to put that album back on again and really, I couldn't stop playing the record for days. It is indeed a fantastic album that is different but somehow familiar. You cannot simply say that this album is like "The Man Who" or "The Invisible Band" or "The Boy With No Name". It has a sound of its own and it shows that the band is trying new things, which is a great sign of longevity. If I had to put a label on this one, I would say that it's like they were at "12 Memories" and kept building upon that.
There may not be your iconic Travis ballad here but what you have are songs that are musically more rich, instrumentally more vibrant, and lyrics that are more meaningful. "Ode to J. Smith" is just an extension of the incredible library they've provided so far and if it all ends here, I'd think that they ended right before they hit their highest level. I can't wait to hear what else this band has in store for us because I know it's going to be their best work.