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Fran Healy needs a hug: On The Invisible Band, Travis’ third album and the follow-up to last year’s The Man Who, the Scottish hanky-rock quartet’s resident weeper isn’t just getting rained onhe’s trapped in a goddamn downpour. And though this constant sorrow must make Healy’s noggin a rather moist place to reside, the singer-songwriter’s prolonged romantic unease provides the fuel for the most deliciously depressing pop album of the year. In fact, in the press notes to “Indefinitely”one half of The Invisible Band’s tear-streaked tag-team finishHealy admits to “sobbing every time I reach the chorus.” Sure, that may be kinda pathetic, but the song is unforgettable. So whatever you do, don’t embrace or console Healy if you see him moping on the street: Just give him a hearty smack on the ass and tell him to have another pint.
With spiritual vocal coach Thom Yorke taking an introverted sabbatical from spreading his heart all over the stage, Healy does enough high- lonesome overemoting for the both of them. (How about this: The Invisible Band, due out Tuesday and produced by longtime Radiohead knob-twiddler Nigel Godrich, is what Yorke’s outfit should sound like these days.) Healy is certainly not a man who’s afraid of looking like a dewy-eyed wuss, and the generally spare guitar-keyboard-drums-with-just-a-mite-of-banjo accompaniment only helps highlight his sloop-shouldered vulnerability. On “Dear Diary” he sings, “Dear diary/What is wrong with me?/Cause I’m fine/Between the lines” over some maudlin, barely-there guitar figuresand you can just about hear his voice catch with authentic anguish. Hell, even on the handful of occasions when he’s feeling chipper, Healy loses control of his emotions; on the pure and blissful “Flowers in the Window”a chummy nod to “Here Comes the Sun”he gets so carried away with the full-bloomed flora that he tosses some Deep Thoughts-esque seagull cries and crashing waves into the jangly mix.
Of course, glee has never been Healy’s strong suit, and the album’s most enduring, endearing momentsand, indeed, most hummablearrive when his inner light turns blue, blue, blue. On “The Cage,” rumored to have been written for Remy Zero’s Cinjun Tate after he was divorced by TV hottie Alyssa Milano, Healy hits some lovely high notes and warbles of a tender romance that was proceeding nicely…”But then this bird just flew away/She was never meant to stay/Oh to keep her caged would just delay the spring.” And the album-closing double whammy of “Indefinitely” and “The Humpty Dumpty Love Song”worth the price of admission right thererecalls the grandiose heartache that an as-yet-unbloated Elton John captured on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy’s epic finale, “We All Fall in Love Sometimes/Curtains.” When Healy/Humpty pleads “Still all I need is you/I just need you/Yeah you got the glue/So I’m gonna give my heart to you”and those lumbering drums and that wedding-march synth kick inwell, it just makes you hope that Travis’ lovable lead loser continues to get his sorry self dumped for a long time to come.
After my first few listens through Amnesiac, Radiohead’s follow-up to 2000’s Kid A, I was fairly certain that the new album is significantly more optimistic than its doomy, gloomy, prog-rocky predecessor. After all, forever-creep Thom Yorke is slowly (finally…) starting to emerge from his dank, echoing cave of bells, beeps, and whistles and allowing his sonorous pipes to perform on top of his band’s free-form music instead of smothering them underneath it. But then I fell asleepheadphones secure, Play button downand suffered the kind of vicious nightmare that’s usually induced only by a late-night binge on Smokehouse almonds. I jerked awake sometime in the hideous rat-scratching hoursshivering, wide-eyed, and overcome with chest-constricting anxietyand arrived at the conclusion that Yorke is still feeling lousy about life; he’s just masking his misery a little better.
To be honest, I often have no idea what in the hell Yorke and his mates are lamenting about even when I’m awakesomething about choke-hold apathy in a technologically advanced society, perhaps? And I get a perverse kick out of slogging through the myriad bloated critiques from stuffy fucks who profess to know exactly what thematic wavelength Yorke is forlornly surfing. Rest assured: The chances of my being a dumbass are very good indeed. But I do know that Radiohead at its best (even at its most sonically difficult) constructs some of the lushest, most inventive soundscapes to be heard these days, and it certainly doesn’t take Roland Barthes to recognize true musical beautyhowever pained that beauty may be.
The other half of the monumental recording session that spawned Kid A (at one point, there was even talk of releasingugha throwback double album), the new disc, though nowhere near as pop-friendly as earlier efforts, is, for the most part, a journey home to less-strenuous accessibility. There was obviously some method to the madness of separating the groaning heap of Kid Amnesiac songs into two discs. (Perhaps Yorke was making a statement about the disintegration of the nuclear familyor maybe he was just venting his understandable fear of almonds.) “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” features a head-bobbing pots-and-pans beat, lotsa cool bloops and blips from Mr. Peabody’s wall-sized computer, and an emboldened, front-and-center Yorke singing over and over, “I’m a reasonable man/Get off my case.” An abbreviated guitar hook and a funky bass line guide “I Might Be Wrong,” as the lead singer advisesor threatens?”Let’s go down the waterfall.” And the sweeping “Knives Out,” with its shuffling, cautious guitars and Yorke’s crystalline vocals, sounds like an outtake from OK Computer.
Admittedly, there’s enough digi-hooha and distorted gunk to be found on Amnesiac to make you wonder if Radiohead wants any fans at all, geeks or otherwise: “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” with its static beats and electric-eely buzzing vox, isn’t as intriguing as it is annoying, and “Hunting Bears” has a promising stretched-guitar beginning that never stops beginning. But just when you think these guys are about to disappear forever up their own self-indulgent asses (but genius asses, to be sure), they give you “Morning Bell/Amnesiac,” a softer, bigger sequel to Kid A’s penultimate track. I’m pretty sure that this one’s about divorce”You can keep the furniture” and “Cut the kids in half” are certainly solid cluesbut I’m absolutely positive that when Yorke as a husband/wife/parent dangling at the end of his/her tether reaches outwith his high tenor for the pleading chorus of “Release me/Release me,” it’s just about the most beautiful, most honest sound to be found at the top of today’s crap-cluttered charts. CP