Tuesday 2 October 2007

what you gonna do to us this time?

Athlete @ Nottingham Rock City, 2nd October 2007

I'm pretty sure that Damo wouldn't have approved, but we pretty quickly decided that we would give Sadpaw and Fonda 500 a miss to have some tea and to watch the first half of the Manchester Utd vs Roma game. Well, if they become famous, then we'll only have ourselves to blame, eh? (although by the sound of their MySpace pages, neither is likely to be U2 anytime soon - Sadpaw sounding a bit folky and Fonda 500 sounding a bit Kings of Leon-lite without as good a singer, and no doubt without as amusing a collection of facial hair but with added plinky-plonky electronic noises. Hmm. I'd take the facial hair every day of the week lads...).

So we rolled into Rock City late. As usual, although a phone call to the venue now informs me exactly what time the headliners are due on stage, and I knew Athlete weren't on until 21:30 (in fact they rolled on at 21:45 and played a little over an hour, which isn't much on the back of three albums if you ask me, but there you go)

I like Athlete a lot, although for me it has been a case of mildly diminishing returns. I loved their debut album, with all it's quirky charms, having first seen them on the bottom of a long bill supporting R.E.M. in Manchester. I've seen them a few times since, and even when they were upstaged a bit by Snow Patrol (in the week before "Run" broke), they've always been pretty good and well worth watching. Although they haven't quite taken the Snow Patrol route to the top, they've been on a gentle upward trajectory all of their own, and possess a wonky charm that marks them out as different from their peers like Coldplay and Snow Patrol. "Tourist" went up to number 6 in the album on the back of the top 5 success of "Wires", which is a great song. I was pleased that they were doing well, and I liked the album, but I felt that the higher production values had taken something away. There was less plinky-plonk. Still, it was a good enough album, so I duly popped out to the shops the other week, on the day their new album was released.

No. No.

I know I shouldn't judge things on first listen, but my immediate reaction was that the songs just weren't there... and that even the single "Hurricane" was -- IMO -- crushingly mediocre. I know I'm being harsh, and I know I should give it another crack, but I've found it hard to give it a fair listen since.

Still, they're a good live band, so I had to try and put my impressions behind me and try to go to the gig with open ears....

My verdict? Well, it's mixed. I think they have songs that sound great played live, and actually I would put some of the new material into this category... they opened up with "Tokyo", and it easily stood comparison with the next song, "You Got The Style", which is one of my favourites. I'm not a big fan of the lyrics to "Hurricane", but to be fair to the band, it works really well live and got the crowd moving. Throw in some of their other songs like "Halflight", "Westside", "Shake Those Windows" and "Tourist" and you're well on the way to a great night. The problem for me though is that Athlete have a few too many songs that are all wide-eyed emotion, but don't really seem to go anywhere: "Beautiful", "Yesterday Threw Everything At Me" and "Airport Disco", to name three. They are songs where Athlete drop their quirkiness in an attempt for something else, perhaps something a bit deeper... but I find myself getting bored. Without the quirk, I find that I am reminded of exactly why Athlete haven't sold as many records as Snow Patrol or Coldplay: brutally it's because they're not as good.

I'm being critical though. There were easily enough good songs to keep me interested, and "Wires" went down brilliantly. It's a good song, no question... and I particularly like the way that they use a slightly odd keyboard noise to lift the song from being a straight-down-the-line ballad...but it's a song I've always found hard to connect with on a personal level because the lyrics seem to be so personal (it's about the premature birth of Joel Pott's daughter). The rest of the crowd seem to have no such difficulty though, and they flung themselves into the lyrics with gusto, clearly seeing the universal appeal of lines like:

"I see it in your eyes, I see it in your eyes
You'll be alright"

It was the first night of their tour and it was a pretty short set.... but they're a decent (if not terribly adventurous) band.

Verdict: 6.5 /10

(and it might just have been a 7 if they'd played "El Salvador", although extra credit is duly awarded for Joel Potts' nice "Raiders of the Lost Ark" t-shirt)


  1. I think that's a bit harsh. The new album need some listens, and whilst I don't think it measures up to the almost-perfect "Tourist", it is, I think, a lot better than people seem to think it is.

    And I'll take issue with your other assessment - Athlete are easily as good as Snow Patrol in so many ways (to many, that will equate to saying that bird poo is as good as cat poo) but their songs are more heartfelt, lush and certainly melodic.

    And they should get an extra half mark for not playing the silly novelty "El Salvador" record,I reckon.

  2. To be fair, I have tried to say that I know I'm being a bit previous in my judgement on the album. Actually, last night's gig has made me want to dig it out and give it another go, which is a good sign, I think... and I listened to it a bit last night as I was writing the review. I disagree that "El Salvador" is a novelty record though... it's about going from making music in your basement to signing to a major record label.

    All I was trying to say about Snow Patrol was that I think Athlete have their own style, with the plinky-plonky bits (like the keyboard noise on "wires") that makes them a bit different. I just don't think they do the wide eyed emotional thing as well as some other bands, and that some of their songs... in my opinion... drag a bit as a result. What I like about Snow Patrol is the wonder you sometimes hear in gary lightbody's voice. I don't get that from Athlete, but I agree that they're much better at other things, and in lots of ways they're a lot more interesting as a band. I think though that as the production values of their albums have increased - perhaps as the record label has tried to push them as a coldplay or as a snow patrol - they have lost a bit of their distinctness, or have at least allowed it to become muffled.

    I still think they're a good band, I'm trying to be constructively critical.

    I enjoyed most of the gig, just not all of it. hence the mark.


  3. Interesting review, and I'm glad that you posted it as, if it hadn't been for Euros Childs at the "Bodega" Social on the same night, I'd have been there myself. The new album does get better over time, and I do like it a lot more after having transcribed Tim Wanstall's interview so closely last week, but this style of music will never really be for me, so all I can do is respect it from a difference. Yes, I miss the bright and bouncy Athlete from 5 years ago too, but as the interview suggests, I guess that the passage of time means that we'll never have them back. And I definitely prefer Athlete 3.0 over their overly Coldplay-ish second incarnation...