April 23, 2003
Athlete : Vehicles And Animals
Less-than-athletic Britpop revival (more manners, less fighting)
4 / 10
Sometimes a Brit band come along in a torrent of hyperbole that you just can't fathom when the record emerges unadorned by the word-of-mouth platitudes lathered upon it by industry insiders and suckerfish sycophants. As is the case with South London's Athlete, a band who single-handedly revive twenty-something bland-lad from his nineties slumber, zip up his Duffer and send him out bleary-eyed into the wide world with a hope and a prayer and a dodgy mockney accent. It's what Radio 1's Colin Murray calls "cheeky chappy road-sweeper music" but in the real world equates to four studenty chaps self-consciously dropping their tees and aitches, a trait that's always going to be a bit too Jamie Oliver for comfort.
And comfortable is something Athlete do well. Having plied their trade as Britpop nearlymen around the hub of Menswear-era Camden, the band returned to the blackboard and chalked up a new strategy: naggingly memorable hooks up front; fringe electronics down the wings; pop sensibility at the back and, well, sensibleness holding the middle. Which means mid-table consistency if little flair, which can get infuriatingly boring. When, near the end, the vaguely reflective 'One Million' drops into static-crunching electro-bass breakdown, or when 'New Project' momentarily gives it some rock-out beans before reverting back to strumming drivel, you can't help mentally screaming, "Why the fuck don't you try a whole song like that? Go on!"
Even for a band of the ordinary bod, Athlete's lyrical content is shockingly mundane. Ruminations on childhood innocence are fine (the title-track yearns for the vacant contentment of toddlerhood) but find Athlete running on the spot. 'You Got The Style' purportedly refers to last year's race riots (which exactly? They're from Deptford, not Oldham) yet sounds remarkably more like a carefree summer sing-along than 'White Riot '. 'Westside' (ha!) recalls their struggling dive-playing days with an ad nauseum repetition of 'Everybody wants to be part of the rock scene', whilst 'Shake Those Windows' meaninglessly reminisces over the stuff they once listened to and, presumably, don't anymore. The desire to fly off somewhere - anywhere - voiced on opener, 'El Salvador', is advised, given the tedium they seem surrounded by.
The emotion factor is equally lukewarm throughout, nullifying even the obvious Coldplay comparisons at the get-go (they were signed by the same A&R guy). But then, perhaps, the biggest thing going for Athlete is that they side-step romantic self-flagellation to mope around the trials and vulnerability of city living and early adulthood. In any case, they do breezy better than soul-searching. 'Beautiful' is mildly uplifting, starry-eyed nonsense whilst the penultimate 'You Know' is dolefully drippy piss.
All of which might be a little hard going on a young group's debut and all. But if a band as complacent as Athlete are meant to represent the future hopes of British indie when, elsewhere, rock has rediscovered its (cutting-) edge, then something's gravely amiss. Whatever, Toploader fans might just have found their new favourite band.
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