Being mean to Travis is like kicking a blind, one-legged puppy that's been recently orphaned. It's simply hard not to like the Glasgow band: not only are they nice Scottish boys you could bring home to your mammy, but they've turned in consistently good material since their 1997 debut Good Feeling. OK, perhaps they haven't released an album that's been start-to-finish brilliance - but from each of their five albums up to this point, there's been at least a fistful of enjoyable, easygoing indie-rock songs.
Ode to J. Smith, their sixth studio album, sees Fran Healy and co. make a bit of a departure from their usual fare, though. Leaving Independiente for the first time in over a decade (to resume their own Red Telephone Box label), perhaps means that the quartet have to re-establish themselves with the public and their fanbase - not least because of their last record, the mostly-flat Boy With No Name. They do so admirably here, leaving behind the feyness of their material since The Man Who in favour of songs brimming with direction and clarity.
J. Smith, for example, is quite different to anything they've done before - a perky pop song that builds to a dramatic, layered reverie of a climax; Broken Mirror is a weighted, sullen, '60s-referencing number that's reminiscent of The Doors, while the uptempo, scuffling melancholia of Friends suggests that Healy's been listening to The Animals' back catalogue. In-between the flickers of interest, however, is the usual standard Travis fare: melodic, slack, lighter-waving anthems that wouldn't stir an army of deaf grannies.
If nothing else, though, Ode to J. Smith demonstrates that when they take control of their songs, rather than be led by the neutral sound that most people now associate them with (like on the darker, quasi-complex Something Anything), Travis are within touching distance of their defining album - if they can stay together long enough to make it.