Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Stuff - Fran Healy

Fran Healy – Wreckorder: As the lead singer and principle songwriter for Travis you would expect Fran Healy’s first solo album to sound very Travisy. And it does, but also not really. It does in the sense that these are Fran Healy songs, and over the years he has developed a very distinct voice despite the various “moods” of every Travis album that has come out for the past fifteen years. Of course what this means is you get bunch of warm, heartfelt, extremely well-written tunes that are openly personal but not explicitly apologetic, i.e. Fran lets you see things from his perspective though not necessarily through his eyes, allowing the moment, the feeling and the content of the song to be not just projected to but shared by the listener. It’s a very sincere and personable experience without getting too squeamishly personal (which long time readers know can kill it for me...Ben Gibbard).

But other than that one major characteristic, the Fran factor, Wreckorder is really nothing like a Travis album at all. The difference is in the approach. To put it simply, it’s the difference between the development of a song as a band/group effort versus a solo artist coming up with everything on his own and probably as he goes along in the studio. This does not make the music stifled or sterile like a lot of solo outings where some good songs by a great writer are lost to a lack of direction and development. Fran seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and instead of focusing on an album as a collective whole (as many Travis albums seem to be "themed" as it were) he’s letting each song speak for itself, with a life and a personality all its own. The end results are an album that discovers a new gem in a different vein with each strike of the pick (please, someone stop me with these metaphors) and yet at the same time remains amiably familiar because, as mentioned previously, these are Fran Healy songs.

If I had to compare Wreckorder to a Travis album it would be their last outing, 2008’s Ode to J. Smith, in the sense of a certain darker mood (which in itself was reminiscent of 12 Memories from 2003) and even a “non Travisy” approach. But really, I only make this comparison to segue into how non Travisy Wreckorder is. A big distinction is the instrumentation. Travis is a rock band - guitars, bass, drums...RAWK! - and while keys or strings are present, they simply enhance certain tracks, a production technique that when missing in a live setting does not damage the integrity of the song. But keys and strings dominate Wreckorder in that they carry many of these numbers, with piano being the focal instrument on several occasions (In the Morning, Shadow Boxing) and strings at other times (Anything), giving these songs a flair of the dramatic without sounding hokey or over the top. A couple others (Sing Me to Sleep – featuring Neko Case, Moonshine) possess a more lo-fi, home recorded demo feel with simple drum machine beats and processed synths, yet this doesn’t detract from the quality of these songs but rather enhances their somewhat brooding temperament. Still, having said all this, Wreckorder is not just a product of the studio, as any or all of these tunes would sound just fine with nothing but Fran and his acoustic. Again, as always, it's the songwriting first and everything else is just gravy.

Aside from Neko Case, other notable guest appearances are Travis alum and pal Andy Dunlop on Holiday (the song most like Travis because of this fact) and Paul McCartney (for whom Fran and fam went vegetarian) playing bass on As It Comes. What this also means is that Wreckorder is more than just a simple solo outing, but a collaboration with friends and colleagues, which accounts for the collectively relaxed vibe on this album. And while I have made a bit of an effort to point out that this does not sound like Travis, fans of the band will certainly love it and even casual listeners who only own The Man Who, maybe the Invisible Band and the Singles collection will certainly find much to enjoy. Bottom line, this is just good music done well, so why not give it a listen?

Check out the single Buttercups here.

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