Long Distance Dedication
Travis, Meshell, Sting and My Former Roommate

This one’s for Liz Balin.

Liz and I shared an apartment in Portland my final year there, and it was easily one of the most tumultuous years of my life. We’re talking massive, sweeping change, the effects of which I’m still feeling, in many ways. For roommates, Liz and I hardly saw each other, but since our initial bonds were all about music, I’d get into the habit of leaving recommended albums out on the kitchen counter, where I knew she’d see them and play them in the mornings.

We’re on opposite coasts now, and time is a precious commodity for both of us, so I don’t get to connect with Liz as much as I’d like. But she’s the only person I know who likes all three of this week’s review subjects. There are certain bands and musicians who are forever associated with certain people to me, and bring those people to mind no matter what songs I hear. These three make me think of Liz Balin, and how much I miss just hanging out and listening to music with her. If I were to talk about these albums to her personally, this is probably pretty close to what I’d say.

* * * * *

Whenever I mention Travis, I have to mention Joel Langston.

I’d like to think I’d have discovered Travis on my own, but as it happened, Joel turned Liz and me on to the British quartet at the same time, by loaning our household a copy of their great second album, The Man Who. The modern British pop renaissance was just starting, and Travis was one of those bands in line to be the next Radiohead (or at least the next Coldplay), if you believed the press.

And they did share one thing in common with Radiohead – an airy, spaced-out sound, courtesy of genius producer Nigel Godrich. The similarities ended there, however. While Thom Yorke’s boys were busy setting his futuristic paranoia to increasingly alien soundscapes, Travis remained the nice band next door, writing sweet love songs and hummable anthems of hope and sadness. In fact, their third album, The Invisible Band, was so damn nice and lightweight that it practically floated away before you could finish listening to it.

I didn’t consider that a flaw until just recently, mind you. Travis has just released 12 Memories, the dictionary definition of a defining album, and it casts the earlier ones into sharp relief. I’d often wondered just how much of the floaty Travis sound was the work of Godrich, and now that they’ve made an album without him, it turns out that the answer is all of it.

12 Memories is the sound of Travis waking up, and I had to hear it three times before I could wrap my mind around the idea that the “Why Does It Always Rain on Me” band could be capable of something this muscular. This album surges with life. It’s drowned in explosive electric guitars, yanked along by a breakneck (for Travis) pace that rarely subsides. It’s also the best thing they’ve made, a powerhouse that finally – finally – establishes a solid identity and carves out its own space.

Really, what they’ve done is become the anti-Coldplay, which is much more clever than it sounds. While most Brit-pop wannabes have taken their cues from Chris Martin and stripped away everything but piano and atmosphere, Travis has made a production, a huge, full, massive-sounding record that stands out by going the other way. Hearing nice guy Fran Healy curse and spit his way through “Peace the Fuck Out” is kind of unsettling, but in its own way just as invigorating as hearing the band crash their way through “Mid-Life Krysis” and “The Beautiful Occupation” as if their guitars were on fire.

Oh, and the songs are quite good, as well. “Quicksand” starts things off with a superb piano-driven melody, “Somewhere Else” delivers one of the year’s best guitar lines, and “Paperclips” stumbles and shuffles with a delightful drunkenness. Almost everything is amped up here – check out the thudding drum beat over the otherwise placid “Happy to Hang Around.” Through it all, Healy sings like never before, refusing to remain content with his pleasing warble and falsetto. He’s a revelation.

The final two memories disappoint somewhat, but only in comparison to what precedes them. “Walking Down the Hill” brings the atmosphere but forgets the soaring chorus melody this arrangement is crying for, and unlisted track “Some Sad Song” finally gives in to the Coldplay influence. Even if they fumbled the ending, though, Travis has delivered far beyond expectations on 12 Memories. This is the sound of a band who doesn’t want to be the next Radiohead anymore. They’re finally ready to start being the first Travis.

* * * * *

Leaving records on the counter for Liz was always a hit-or-miss proposition. One of the few times I hit big, though, was with Bitter, the textured third album from Meshell Ndegeocello. The album is a short, meandering ode to broken hearts and angry pain, delivered entirely with slow, folksy grooves. Ndegeocello has never done another one like it, before or since, and for my money, she’s never found a better setting for her husky, sultry voice.

That includes Comfort Woman, her just-released fifth album, though this one comes in a close second. Coming on the heels of last year’s Cookie, an hour-plus-long funk-rap-o-rama, Comfort Woman is a 39-minute space jam that shows off Ndegeocello at her most cosmic and most earthy. These 10 short songs set gorgeous, blissed-out keyboard and guitar lines over a dub base, and center on that deep, penetrating voice. Like Bitter, this is an album of love songs – it’s almost a counterpart, coming as it does from a place of wide-open optimism.

The problem with Comfort Woman is the same problem that has dogged Ndegeocello’s work all along – a lack of memorable melodies, and often, a lack of any melodies at all. It’s a shame that she doesn’t give her voice more to do, especially since it’s pretty captivating all by itself. She sticks to half-spoken wanderings and two-note phrases here, which I would pass off as in keeping with the hazy, druggy style of the disc if she didn’t do this all the time, no matter the milieu.

Regardless, Comfort Woman is a rewarding listen, in ways that Cookie was not. And like Bitter, which concluded with the cyclical “Grace,” this album ends with its best song: “Thankful” brings it all together, with its contented lyric, thumping drums and bass, and gently soaring guitar theme. It’s three minutes of bliss capping off an album that wanders hither and thither before hitting upon lucidity. At its worst, this record is a loose collection of jams with extemporaneous love lyrics superimposed. At its best, however, it’s as mind-expanding and trippy a ride as its author obviously intended.

* * * * *

I hope Liz doesn’t mind me revealing this, but I’ve never met a bigger Sting fan in my life.

The younger of you may not remember or believe this, but there was once a time when Sting was considered the epitome of cool. The early ’80s made a lot of ridiculously uncool people seem cool, but Sting was genuinely admired by just about everyone. The first three Police albums are unassailable, taking equally from punk, reggae and new wave to form a signature hybrid that just plain rocks. Even those last two albums, when the blinding light of fame illuminated every breath they took, hold up. They’re pretty… well, cool.

And then something weird happened. Sting launched a solo career, won a few Grammys, and turned into a weak pop star. And it gets worse – I’ve always considered Sting a punk-popper who’s just been masquerading as a frightfully mellow lite-FM guy, but in his new autobiography Broken Music, he asserts that it’s the reverse. If he’s to be believed, he’s always been a sappy balladeer, and for more than a decade, he was posing as cool.

This, of course, throws the whole notion of cool and uncool into upheaval, because when Sting was cool, he really was. If he’s being honest, and the whole time he was writing “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon” he really wanted to be writing songs like “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying,” then he’s one hell of an actor. And I’ve seen Dune. Guy can’t act.

Sting has kept fans like myself and Liz hoping for a return to the former greatness for more than 10 years now, and it might be time to give up. I can remember Liz asking the clerk at Borders for Sting’s last album: “Do you have any copies of Brand New Probably Excruciating Day?” And man, was that one bad: “Is he rapping? In French? What the…?”

Well, guess what. The downward trend continues on Sacred Love, the winner for Worst Album Title of the Year. The Sting of 1981 would never have named an album Sacred Love. And he never would have written a series of songs this treacly and stupid. Sting has taken his cues from the successful dance mix of “Desert Rose” that made him so much money last year, and he’s added clubby beats to most of these tracks. “Send Your Love” is perhaps the best of the first batch, and even that wears after one chorus. I can’t even bring myself to discuss “Whenever I Say Your Name,” his duet with Mary J. Blige, except to say, “I smell Grammy!”

The album is nearly over before Sting provides the one gem you can usually count on from him. “This War” is a guitar-driven corker with typically unsubtle lyrics about the state of the world. He forgot, however, to list his own crappy album, and in fact the second half of his generally crappy solo career, among the various ills plaguing the human race. With each successive album, Sting seems to move further away from that brief moment when he was one of the coolest guys on earth, and I move closer to never listening to any of his work again. Sacred Love is a new low, a near-total disaster that lives down to its title.

And I’d bet that Liz Balin has already bought it and hated it.

Miss you, kid.

See you in line Tuesday morning.