Smart, Commercial, Tuneful Rock

Three of the most important elements in successful pop music making (I don’t mean the Britany variety), in my opinion, are tunes, craft and originality. Paloalto has two out of three, and that’s more than enough to push this pleasing disc into the spotlight. The missing element is the most difficult one to discover, create of whatever it is, and that’s originality. Paloalto follow partially in the footsteps of the British band Travis—and to a far lesser degree, Coldplay—and that’s all there is to it. Given that this sensitive, introspective genre is often called “shoe-gazing music,” in what else but footsteps would you expect them to follow?

Don’t dismiss the utility of following. When The Beatles hit, just about everyone followed and plenty of great music resulted. The further away we get from the epicenter of that explosion the more the music of the mid to late ‘60’s sounds similar. That’s the way it goes. So you have to forgive Paloalto’s lack of originality, which they more than compensate for with an album’s worth of sturdy tunes compellingly delivered, and with Rick Rubin producing, impeccably sculpted.

Band leader, songwriter and lead singer James Grundler has absorbed Travis lead singer Fran Healy’s falsetto, vibrato and especially his vulnerable ache, blended it with Bono’s most clinched-butt, powerful wail and seasoned it with a secret blend of American spices to come up with his own effective vocal personality. Guitarist Andy Blunda similarly rains down bell-shaped cascades of single notes ala Travis’s Andy Dunlop and then hits the floor pedals into overdrive with chunky “The Edge”-like fills. It works. Even drummer Florian Reinert gets into the swing of the Travis thing with loose tuning and fat, off-kilter swats.

The opener, “The World Outside,” will give Travis fans a mean case of the déja-vus from the first note. It’s almost a remake of “Writing to Reach You,” from 1999’sThe Man Who in every musical sense. Both songs are about communication, isolation and trying to break through barriers, but from differing perspectives. Grundler’s expressing someone else’s turmoil. Healy’s is first person pain. One step removed is somewhat safer, but being an American band in today’s corrosive environment, expressing any vulnerability—even someone else’s—is risky enough! I wouldn’t expect Mr. Grundler to write or deliver anything like this daring Travis line from “As You Are,”: “Every day I wake up alone because I’m not like all the other boys.”

The band shifts gears for the second tune— its bid for airplay—with the driving, muscular “Fade Out/In” based on a catchy two-chord vamp that Blunda drives to perfection. I haven’t heard this on New York’s XRK yet, for reasons I can’t begin to understand.

“Breath In,” a few tracks later, is another serving of Travis (“Driftwood”) with a side order of Coldplay, but again it’s well crafted in every sense and later, “Throwing Stones” sounds like a perfect hybrid of the two British groups with the addition of a particular brand of muscularity only an American band can deliver.

Overall Paloalto is more rock and less folk than Travis, delivering far greater forward propulsion and drive, though with equally melancholic tunefulness, and while there’s some shoe-gazing going on, usually it’s at someone else’s shoes. Grundler is a thoughtful, economical lyricist who packs dense poetic images into few words and makes them resonate.

Rubin’s production touches range from stripped down guitar driven to string-drenched lush and there’s always something interesting to engage the ear if you want to scratch below the well congealed surface.

Perhaps it was the bid for commercial success, but the recording by Ed Thacker has been compressed to within a few inches of its life, and the EQ balance is tipped up in the mids and lower highs, giving it a slightly harsh balance. Not a distinguished recording, but then Thacker’s work on XTC’s Oranges and Lemons was nothing to rave about either. Still, the mixes are excellent and by today’s low standards the sound is not too bad. Travis’s The Man Who—at least on the U.K. CD— sounds like a lush RCA “Living Stereo” by comparison!

Melodic, thoughtful, folk/pop/rock has made a comeback. Look at Coldplay’s mainstream success and note how many television commercials have already lifted their sound (Saab for one). Paloalto has the musical goods to succeed. If you’re comfortable walking the Coldplay/Travis musical axis, you won’t be disappointed with Paloalto—as long as you can get past what they’ve copped.

Which brings me to two final points: one is, some yutz in Esquire talked up this disc and said something like “Now that Travis is no longer important…” Right. Travis never was “important,” they’re just a good pop/rock group with hauntingly melodic tunes. But how anyone can listen to Paloalto and say that Travis is not “important,” is beyond me. No matter how you listen, Travis is “important” to Paloalto. In fact, the group wouldn’t exist—in this form at least—without it. The other point is that the press release has Grundler claiming his inspiration for the record was The Fifth Dimension’s Greatest Hits while citing My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver and The Beach Boys as influences. The release writer adds Pink Floyd, Swervedriver, Smashing Pumpkins and Catherine Wheel as influences. Fine: but ignoring Travis is like doing a horror movie about a giant prehistoric dinosaur awakened by atomic testing that ravages Tokyo and saying it was influenced by “Gone With the Wind.”