June 02, 2005

Athlete "Tourist"

What happens when you're a young band with a minor bit of success, and you want to make a bold artistic statement? Do you seize the moment, knowing that this opportunity might not pass your way again, or do you simply try to remain true to the formula that people loved , hoping that the same ingredients produce the same results? It's an extremely difficult path to travel, because either decision could result in superstardom or failure. If you don't take a risk, your art won't grow, and you'll stagnate. Stepping out on the risk limb can be rewarding, but the downside is that one wrong turn can kill your career.

Such is the issue Athlete faced when following up their critically accalaimed debut album, Vehicles & Athletes. The two singles it generated, "Westside" and "You Got The Style," were gorgeous songs that sounded good on the radio. Though a promising debut record, it was very much a debut; its prettier moments were tempered with slightly innocuous songs that followed the Britpop formula a bit too closely. Vehicles & Athletes wasn't an embarassment, by any means, but one hoped that their next record would find them striking upon a sound that was clearly their own. Considering the amount of attention that would be paid to their new record--and probably the number of times Coldplay appeared in reviews for Vehicles & Athlete--it's understandable why the band would want their new album to be a maturation of their debut.

From the first moments of Tourist, it's obvious that Athlete achieved their desire to make a bigger, bolder sound. "Chances" is dark, sad piano ballad tempered with an orchestra, and it certainly feels as if Athlete's succeeded in growing beyond their humble debut album's more traditional, conservative sound. But there's a problem with the song's arrangement: it doesn't quite feel right. Much like a child running around in a shirt that's two sizes too big, Athlete's newfound maturity feels awkward, as if they're reaching for something that's a bit beyond their reach. For example, "Wires," one of Tourist's better numbers, the mixture of a computerized drum track and the orchestral accompaniment simply feels wrong. The awkward arrangement doesn't distract from the overall beauty of the song, but it doesn't feel quite natural, either.

Setting aside the awkwardness of the band's sudden maturity, one simple fact can't be overlooked: Athlete has matured quite nicely, and Tourist is a gorgeous record. For every moment that seems off, there are at least ten that feel right. It's to Athlete's credit that they took the time to experiment with their sound. Lead singer Joel Pott still sings with a lazy tone that understandably gathers comparison to Chris Martin, but given Athlete's recent maturity, his voice tempered with the bigger arrangements proves quite appealing. On gentle songs like "If I Found Out," "Street Map" and "I Love," Pott and company steer Athlete's sound into a beautiful, lush direction that's instantly appealing, which contrast nicely the more upbeat moments of "Tourist," "Modern Mafia" and "Half Life." All in all, Tourist is a fresh, engaging record that never bores.

On first listen, Tourist might seem like a bit of a misstep, but it's not. It's a mature, interesting--though imperfect--album by a group that's allowing itself the luxury of maturity. They could have simply decided to continue to follow the Keane/Coldplay path, but instead, they've offered up a mighty lovely record that might superfically seem to align them with Britpop imitators, but in reality, the album's heady direction breaks them away from the crowd. Tourist might be their transition record, but that only means one thing: the follow-up is going to be brilliant.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.athlete.mu
Label Website: http://www.astralwerks.com

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