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Singing in the Rain: British band Travis' single 'Why Does It Always Rain on Me?' will soon be inescapable on American radios.

Chicken Soup For the Lyrics

Maudlin messages and predictable sentiments mar the catchy beats and arena-sized gestures of Travis

By Michelle Goldberg

TRAVIS IS ABOUT to become very, very famous in the United States. The band is already big news in England, where its sophomore album, The Man Who, won two Brit awards, the UK's equivalent of the Grammies. Travis is touring as Oasis' opening act, and the boyish mugs of its members have graced the magazine covers of CMJ and the Tower Records freebie, Pulse.

So I was both disappointed and disillusioned when I finally heard Travis' maddeningly mediocre, frequently embarrassing The Man Who. The album swings between Radiohead-style wall-of-sound melancholia and retro-Eagles melodies, with a tendency toward mawkishness that sometimes--chillingly--reminds me of Air Supply.

Like Radiohead, Travis expertly (and paradoxically) evokes shoe-gazing desolation with soaring guitar anthems. But while Radiohead seemed to reinvent classic rock with its paranoid, ennui-drenched lyrics and eerily expansive soundscapes, Travis is merely a slave to its influences.

There are several moments on The Man Who during which one gets the uncomfortable feeling that the band wants to conjure up a stadium full of lighter-hoisting fans. The songs overwhelmingly stick to the same template: tight, jangly, despondent verses punctuated by rousing, bathetic choruses.

Like last fall's overhyped and underwhelming British export Gay Dad, Travis is notable for lead singer Francis Healy's John Lennonesque croon. Healy uses it to particularly banal effect on "Driftwood," belting out the lyric "I'm sorry that you've turned to driftwood/But you've been drifting for a long, long time" with squirming earnestness.

The music is tight, sure, but utterly predictable, as is the even more overblown "Turn," an incitement to vague social change that contains the highly original cry "I want to live in a world where I belong."

IT FEELS ODD to despise a band for being too maudlin. For the past several years, an excess of irony and bravado has been choking the life out of rock. After all, we desperately need an antidote to Beck's smirking hipster dada and to Limp Bizkit's idiot testosterone-drunk bluster. But Travis' brand of sentimental arena rock is often just as bad. It says next to nothing about real life, reflecting instead the weepy grandiosity of Hollywood filtered through several decades of rock clichés.

The problem isn't that Travis is too vulnerable--quite the opposite. The band frames its emotions in such generic terms that they're reduced to filler, recycled rock tropes that express nothing but Travis' affection for the bands it seems to be trying so hard to sound like. Not a single message surfaces in any of the songs on The Man Who that couldn't have been gleaned from Chicken Soup for the Soul. On "Slide Show," for example, Healy informs us that "there's no design for life."

Certainly, plenty of rock singers wring profundity from words that sound ridiculous on paper. But Travis suffers from two problems: Half the time, Healy's vocals are completely without conviction. Then, when he does inject some passion into his voice, he does so on lyrics that can only be described as irredeemably terrible.

Even on the insanely catchy hit single, "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" (a tune about boundless self-pity in the tradition of Radiohead's "Creep"), a certain slickness in the music precludes empathy. One pictures Healy delivering the lyrics with a loopy grin. He may have genuinely experienced the disconsolate misery he sings about, but not a trace of that experience can be heard in his smooth, sparkling vocals. The bouncy, eminently sing-along-able music should serve as a bitter contrast to the despondent lyrics, but instead it all just sounds relentlessly upbeat, as if the sadness in the words was merely incidental.

At the same time, Healy shows that he is entirely capable of expressing real sorrow. But his best vocal performances make for the album's most frustrating songs, because they're marred by such abysmal lyrics.

One of the genuinely lovely tracks on The Man Who sports the singularly awful title "The Last Laugh of the Laughter," a line that is also the song's chorus. Healy sprinkles grammar-school French phrases throughout the track--"Ma vie, toute ma vie," and I keep thinking that the song would have been improved if he had sung it all in a foreign tongue. Then the cheesy words would fade behind the delicate guitar tune and the pretty, aching vibrato in his voice. Similarly, "Luv" climaxes with the line "We never ever planned to fall in love." It's the kind of pop sentiment you've heard so often it means nothing.

In all likelihood, Travis will be the subject of a massive marketing blitz. Soon, you'll be hearing "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" on the radio and seeing the quartet's cute well-scrubbed faces on MTV. It's worth remembering, though, that being "huge in England" offers no guarantee of quality. At the same Brit ceremony where Travis was given a best-album award, the Spice Girls were honored for "Outstanding Contribution to British Music." America, after all, has no monopoly on schmaltz.

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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