Travels The Hot Summer

[Self-Released; 2009]

Styles: “you and me against the world” indie rock
Others: Elliott Smith, Julie Doiron, Metal Hearts, Victory at Sea

If you've ever wondered who wrote the book of love, you wouldn't go awry in asking Mona Elliott and Anar Badalov of Travels. They may not have the definitive answer but could certainly point you in an appropriate direction. Travels have been playing in a pleasant cul-de-sac for two albums now, blissfully unaware or unfazed by the adjacent main road cluttered by arrogant and disposable music. The couple’s latest home-recorded, self-released record is The Hot Summer, and although the beguiling melodies still pop up in spades, there is a marked change in tact. Even the cover art (by Elliott) recalls the naïve handmade visual approach of their first album, but with globs of color and a glossy design, there is something new afoot. The differences are negligible at times yet glaringly obvious at others. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed.

Whereas their debut effort was propelled almost entirely on barely-harnessed emotion and great ambiance (and damn good tunes), their sophomore effort adds a few nifty surprises to the mix. This is still very much a Travels release -- passion and pathos reign supreme, and tension is created by both what we can and cannot hear -- but The Hot Summer sees Badalov and Elliott busting out from the trying shadows of recording their cathartic debut and stepping into a brand new day with a somewhat surprising confidence and, hell, even a swagger. Right from the start, the fuzz in “The Forgotten” and the plink-plonkity of “Favorite People” tells us that Travels have grown.

Integrating a variety of styles, The Hot Summer seems longer than its 10 tracks. This time around, good spanners occur frequently in the works. We are not talking lengthy forays into musique-concrète or tape manipulation blasts, but there is a noticeable array of off-kilter right-angles in their pop songs that sounds rich and distinctive. The backing vocals are plumped up and add a great deal this time around too; from simple “la-las” to overlapping yelps, the voices add a welcome dimension that is anything but subtle. In the over-crowded arena of quiet male/female duos, there is no mistaking Travels' sound now, even though their song cores and emotionally resonating, uncontrived style remain the same.

Badalov and Elliott compose from what they know: themselves. Once again and usurprisingly, Mona and Anar sound like they are soldered together, the two sharing one heart but with different ideas and voices. Sometimes. Sometimes they sound like one neutral, intersex voice. On the surface, this may seem like an insular, exclusionary listen, but in presenting universal themes (relationships, friendships, hardships), the songs’ depths reveal themselves to anyone. These songs describe something rare and valuable: a place where the complex differences erodes between the private lives of the artists and the public ones of the listeners.

A big part of The Hot Summer comes from the utter lack of reluctance to change pace throughout the album and even within the songs themselves. “Fairy Tales” takes us on a journey of simmering tension, full of teasing piano, faint distortion, and horn before drifting into a church organ segue then into a repetitious coda confessional. “Animal” is a different beast altogether, featuring skittery beats and, seriously, singing that vaguely recalls The Free Design or a likeminded sun-kissed vocal act, as strange as that comparison may seem. Here and elsewhere, all is still as innocent as can be, but there are touches of menace instilled for very good measure. “Severed” and “Dogs” are prime examples of what is different about the band now. If the songs were issued a year or two ago, they would have sounded threadbare -- now, they are beefy, without any loss of allure.

The Hot Summer contains an older Travels tune, “Olivia Hurt,” that is reprised from their self-titled release and that bridges the gap nicely between the past and the present. As far as I can tell, both versions are identical, yet the track compliments and changes both sets of whimsical collages. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. You wouldn’t want it any other way.

1. The Forgotten
2. Favorite People
3. Olivia Hurt
4. Happiness (you woke up)
5. Buzzards Bay
6. Severed
7. Dogs
8. Fairy Tales
9. Animal
10. The New Year

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