Athlete, Tourist

Athlete, Tourist

Well, folks, it looks like epic arena rock is back, and thank God for that. I was starting to get worried that Coldplay, who pretty much single-handedly made grand, Floydian, not-too-rough rock cool once again, were a fluke, but thankfully, here comes fellow Brits Athlete, with Tourist, and between ’em (okay, and Keane and the somewhat darker Muse, and probably a few others, to boot), this is starting to look it could be a trend. And personally, that’s fine by me — I wasn’t a huge Oasis fan, but there was never any doubt that they made “big” music, music that soared and couldn’t be contained by just some rinky-dink nightclub in Soho, and I firmly believe there always needs to be that kind of thing going around.

Now, with that said, Tourist caught me somewhat off-guard. I’d heard a few things off of 2003’s Vehicles & Animals, and while the memory of those songs isn’t real fresh in my mind, what I keep coming back to while listening to this album is, “Is this the same damn band?” Don’t let the intriguing cover art and the fact that they’re on Astralwerks throw you — this time out Athlete have thrown out most of the electronic experimentation in favor of piano arrangements and careful, heartfelt pop-rock. Hence the Coldplay mention above; and sadly, it’s a comparison that I keep coming back to. Album opener “Chances,” for example, begins quiet and delicate, with piano and vocals, and while it does quickly swell into a beautiful, orchestral piece of sweeping rock, well…. No offense intended to Joel Pott (vocals & guitar), Carey Willetts (bass), Steve Roberts (drums), and Tim Wanstall (keys), but in this day and age, if you’re starting songs (and albums) with emotive piano figures, you’re pretty much pigeonholing yourself. Heck, every time I hear the song’s intro, I find myself expecting Pott to break into “The Scientist.”

Just to clarify, I’m not saying that Athlete are just a bunch of Coldplay wannabes, or that Tourist is a bad album. On the contrary, I’m worried that the inevitable “Call Coldplay and tell ’em they’ve got their own personal Stone Temple Pilots!” reaction could overshadow the reality that there are some excellent, thoughtful, affecting songs on here. Take, for three examples, “Half Light,” with its shimmery, ringing guitars and odd little electronic touches, a track that sounds like Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough on a steady diet of Death Cab For Cutie; “Trading Air,” all subtle piano and atmosphere; or “Yesterday Threw Everything At Me,” which hits its best moment at the end, when the noise fades out and leaves Pott alone in an empty room, banging on a guitar and singing naked and unfiltered.

Then there’s the aforementioned “Chances,” the urgent, desperate balladry of “Twenty Four Hours,” and the album’s closer, “I Love,” which is all quiet, acoustic guitars and vocals floating over washes of melodic noise, like Sigur Rós backing Billy Bragg at one of his softer moments. The album’s absolute highlight, though, is “Wires,” a touching, exhausted-yet-jubilant outpouring of love from new father Pott to his newborn child. The vocals are detached and flat, even as the vocalist sings about running down corridors to get to the plastic cube where the baby’s hooked up to machines, but the emotion’s there, bubbling beneath the surface, tense and afraid; when Pott finally sings “I see it in your eyes, I see it in your eyes / You’ll be alright,” the relief is palpable.

In case you can’t catch it from the above, the ballads work. They may occasionally be too quiet, too unthreatening (and yes, there’s a slight whiff of Adult Alternative to some of the tracks, I’ll admit), but y’know, even with that, they work. They take some time to talk their way into the room, sure, but once they’re there, it’s to stay. Oddly enough, it’s when Athlete tries to step back to its Vehicles & Animals roots that things fall flat. They attempt it twice, on the title track, which grooves, but robotically, like a de-sexed Maroon 5 song, and on “Modern Mafia,” which aims for the catchiness of the band’s pseudo-hit “You Got The Style” but ends up just being boring and repetitive. The two songs stick up like ugly, out-of-place weeds in the middle of Tourist‘s lush, heartfelt, mellow soft-rock field.

The funniest thing album this album is that while the music’s definitely captivating, it’s the lyrics that steal the show. There’s a serious theme running throughout Tourist, all about love and distance; it’s the sound of the melancholy, still-hopeful yearning of a modern man stranded far from the people he cares about. He’s a tourist in a foreign land, simultaneously enjoying himself and desperately longing to be back home. At their core, these are love songs for the digital age. Take the desperate “Twenty Four Hours,” for example, where Pott talks about how everything’s “caught wide screen,” “Wires,” which is all about the cold, efficient machinery of a modern hospital, or “Half Light,” where he sings “It’s you and me connected to a satellite / It’s you and me and love through a machine.”

All of this wonderful technology, he seems to be saying, the stuff that’s supposed to make our lives simpler and more convenient, it’s created even more distance between us as people. The closing break of “If I Found Out” might as well serve as the album’s thesis: “I thank you or soul / No point unless you got soul / This world has got to have soul.” And at the risk of being tagged as a Luddite, I’ll come out and ask the question that Pott and the rest of the band are dancing around on Tourist: really, what is the use of all that technology without soul to keep us feeling alive?

(Astralwerks Records -- 104 West 29th Street, New York, NY. 10001; http://www.astralwerks.com/; Athlete -- http://www.athlete.mu/)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Saturday, October 1st, 2005. Filed under Reviews.

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