Fran Healy | Wreckorder (Rykodisc)

Wreckorder offers up more minor detours and mild experimentation than a typical Travis record, but it never strays far from a familiar path.

 

Fran Healy has decided to sally forth with a solo album. I’m not sure what makes Wreckorder different from a Travis album, except that here Healy plays nearly all of the instruments himself. Maybe it’s a rebranding effort, or maybe he needed a professional vacation. Whatever the rationale, Healy stares back from the cover with a squint, a slight salt-and-pepper beard and a weird Australian hat.

True to form, he wastes no time sending an unmistakable minor-key piano figure your way. This is tempered with ominous, cymbal-less drums that patter with the nervousness of a fitful, pre-storm shower. You know this, yet you don’t. It’s a nice mix of old and new that bodes well for the rest of the record. Lead single "Buttercups" delivers a trademark Healy chime, all initial brightness with a sighing, slump-shouldered undercurrent sewn into its inner lining. It’s a bit obvious but also a flat-out great tune. "Shadow Boxing" wisely switches gears a bit, using an almost Radiohead-like metronomic electronic beat to great effect. "Moonshine" is especially enjoyable — loose yet assured, with an unexpectedly sly, Stray Cats style hep-jazz bounce.

In case you need cajoling, there are a few friends along for this ride. In a minor coup, "As It Comes" features Paul McCartney on bass. You wouldn’t know it without being told, but once you’re paying attention you can hear his trademark bass lines merging with Healy’s rain-soaked Revolver-y songcraft. The collaboration makes sense; after all, Healy’s stock in trade is a very Macca-esque, pretense-free melodicism and earnestness. This Beatles ’66 vibe carries over into the nicely skulking, cello-underscored “Fly In The Ointment.” You hear a more noticeable guest appearance on "Sing Me To Sleep," a duet with the inimitable Neko Case. Her vocal style here falls halfway between New Pornographers belter mode and alt-country chanteuse.

Wreckorder offers up more minor detours and mild experimentation than a typical Travis record, but it never strays far from a familiar path. The album is all about adding a few new tricks to well-seasoned musical craftsmanship. Healy will always be skilled but limited, a sort of poor man’s Neil Finn. He’s never going to be more than a slightly above-average lyricist, and he sticks to a personal array of stock song structures. But he’s at his best when he displays a willingness to make short day trips from his comfort zone while still using his available tools to their greatest effect, as he does on this outing. Few songwriters so consistently display such a refined ability to sound, at once, sunny and sad. C+ | Mike Rengel 

RIYL: Paul McCartney when he’s not being a total cheeseball, what would happen to Crowded House if they were trapped in an unending, Groundhog Day-style Glasgow layover, Travis

 

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