In 2015, Philadelphia’s Travel Lanes released ‘Let’s Begin To Start Again’, a hit and miss album that mixed a few pop and power pop influences with several rootsier John Mellencamp, John Hiatt and Connells styled moods. A few wobbly vocals let the side down from time to time, but there were a few decent tracks to be found within. Five years down the road, their third album only offers eight tracks in a very succinct twenty nine minutes, but its concise approach very much suits the band. Compared to previous Travel Lanes works, ‘On’ is far more consistent in terms of quality.
Reason enough to give the album a listen, ‘It’s Time’ is a fine piece of country rock. Following a slightly wobbly intro, the band soon settles into a friendly and warm arrangement that borrows a few sounds from The Connells, but dresses them in a slightly more complex way. Of particular note is the way bassist Mitch Cojocariu chooses to play in a very upfront fashion. He makes his strings dance throughout and his fluid playing joins a pleasing pedal steel from Jim Fogarty, fleshing out the music in a particularly old fashioned style. Frank Brown’s lead vocals aren’t the strongest in the world, but given time to adjust, his John Hiatt-ish twang seems to be a natural fit for the music. All things considered, this could be Travel Lanes’ best ever four minutes. Also enjoyable, ‘Mr. Lux’ applies a rocky backdrop to a jaunty power pop-ish tune that hints as much at a love for Elvis Costello’s ‘King of America’ as the band’s usual country tropes, and between the stabbed piano lines, incessantly repeated hook and a great sound, it shows off some solid talents and a great energy.
Elsewhere, ‘Routine’ wobbles between something that sounds like an ‘Altered Beast’ era Matthew Sweet demo and something a bit funkier, but seems non-committal to either mood at first. The presence of a stronger chorus hook and a more obviously country vibe lifts the tune just enough and the addition of a retro keyboard sound is unexpected, but first impressions actually suggest there isn’t quite enough to make it stand with the album’s best tunes. It turns out that first impressions can’t always be trusted, as repeated listens allow the best bits of this track to shine: although it’s a bit all over the place tonally, it’s more than obvious the band are enjoying themselves and its instrumental coda shows off some solid players. ‘True & Tried’ steps back towards more of the sounds of the previous album as a pop-laden tune borrows from a few power pop influences from the early 80s, but as before, there’s something in their overall sound that has more of an Americana slant. The guitars chime and jangle brilliantly throughout and the punchier sound that can be heard leading into the chorus with a slightly Squeeze-ish lilt shows a band with a growing confidence. It isn’t quite up there with ‘On’s more obviously country-rooted sounds (specifically ‘It’s Time’), but it’s fine enough. ‘Answer My Prayer’, meanwhile, casts aside any power pop aspirations of previous albums and casts Travel Lanes in a very defiantly country mould. Heavily twanged guitars jostle with a steel guitar; slapping basslines call to mind the classic boom-chick-a-boom sound of Johnny Cash’s early 60s gold and everything is really tight. If you don’t like older style country, there’s nothing for you here of course, but it’s hard to deny that this is well arranged.
Another stand out comes at the tail end of this short collection and ‘Can’t Lose’ finds Travel Lanes in a much moodier place. Taking a slow rhythm and fuzzier guitars, things become far more Crazy Horse infused – a sound that suits Travel Lanes especially well. Between a heavily wah-wah-ed guitar part, a few thoughtful harmonies and (eventually) the kind of positive chorus that seems at odds with the darker mood, the band shows how well they can nail an almost timeless sound. “You can’t lose what’s in front of you, when all that love surrounds you” Brown cries intermittently, and his choice to close the record with such a universal emotion is a particularly smart move. With this album hitting the shelves (and inboxes) amid a global health pandemic, music fans need words of positivity and encouragement more than ever.
Between a few genuine highlights and some solid material, a couple of tunes are more obviously flawed, but even then, even the lesser tracks outshine the bulk of the previous record. ‘Big Heart’ opts for straight Americana with a strong 90s vibe, but doesn’t really reach full potential and is really left wanting chorus-wise and the stomping hoe-down that cuts through ‘Lover’s Lane’ comes too close to being a bit of a country music cheese-fest. That said, you’ll find some fine playing – the interplay between guitarists Brown, Fogarty and guest lap steel player Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner is very cool; it’s a shame it couldn’t be heard in a better song.
Warts ‘n’ all, ‘On’ is definitely an album that is worth checking out if you have a fancy for good old country rock. As with the previous album, some tracks are noticeably better than others, but most are much better than ‘…Start Again’ ever suggested. This album isn’t destined for classic status by any stretch, but when Travel Lanes hit the mark – which, thankfully, they do on this record more often than not – it’s pretty easy to get swept along with their enthusiasm. If you were never convinced by Travel Lanes previously, you might just be surprised by what you’ll find here.