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The Invisible Band (Epic)


Sometimes comparisons between bands are unfair -- usually to the newer group, which is trying to establish a reputation and identity of its own. But in the case of a recent clutch of dreamy, guitar-based midtempo pop outfits -- Doves, Badly Drawn Boy and Travis -- the frequent mention of Radiohead in the same sentence only hurts the latter. What still separates Thom Yorke and company from Travis, who in Nigel Godrich share a producer with Radiohead, is the way they wield emotion. Radiohead's most compelling songs either unleash Yorke's horrified tenor over a brittle soundscape to convey their global distrust or spike the music with layers of barely restrained fury while Yorke sounds detached. The fact that Radiohead has chosen of late to lay off the guitar has rankled critics and fans, but that ignores Yorke's raw-nerve singing on Kid A and Amnesiac.

Travis' singer, Francis Healy, is more comfortable with engagement; he sings in Yorke's musical range but walks only one side of his emotional street -- the side that lets him feel, as he sings on The Invisible Band's seventh song, "Safe." And because his own tenor is pretty and creeps easily up to a falsetto -- albeit one that, unlike Yorke's, is somehow reassuring -- his singing will continue to draw Radiohead comparisons in equal measure with guitarist Andy Dunlop's playing.

It's easy to get wrapped up in such comparisons because Travis has, with its third album, The Invisible Band, perfected the chiming menace of Radiohead's guitar sound. Godrich has crafted a disc that sounds the way a lot of people would have preferred for Kid A: a softer sequel to OK Computer. And it's hard to escape the feeling that Travis does it on purpose. The group's debut EP was called All I Wanna Do Is Rock, after all -- clearly a dirty lie. But if anything, The Invisible Band is quieter than Kid A, a conventional rock disc only in its user-friendly song structures and embrace of plain old un-Pro Tooled instruments.

The main difference between the groups -- and it's a big one -- remains Healy's lyrics. Unlike Yorke, Healy has no trouble writing songs about romantic love, songs with such pronouns as "you" and "she." Nor is he afraid to hang awkwardly plainspoken sentimentality on the band's ringing tunes. The chorus of album opener "Sing" makes R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" sound as ambiguous as "Shine on You Crazy Diamond": For the love you bring won't mean a thing unless you sing, sing, sing, Healy softly pleads into major chords. With Dunlop's banjo and the song's longhaired, open-collar invitation, it sounds more like vintage Bread than Radiohead. (The song is even followed by one called "Dear Diary"; a secret fetish for Bread might be the most exciting thing about Travis if it turns out to be true.)

There's no denying that Travis fills a gap and does so in a way that frequently satisfies. The Radiohead of The Bends and OK Computer isn't coming back -- and bully for the group. It's unlikely that Travis will muster the combination of vision and ambition it takes to really piss off critics and transcend its second-tier status, but that doesn't mean its songs suck. The Invisible Band is better than 1999's breakthrough, The Man Who, more comfortable with its Radiohead affectations and more consistent in its songs. If Healy's lyrics play Patty Smyth to Yorke's Patti Smith, well, there's always the music, which is dense and rich enough to camouflage most of Travis' shortcomings.

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