Labeling an artist a fluffy light-rock Muzakhead is the kiss of death for musical credibility, conjuring nightmarish visions of Air Supply and other somnolent saps. But there's no denying that the music of Brits Dido and Travis doesn't exactly ooze testosterone. Dido's breezy "Thank You," sampled by Eminem for "Stan," floats with the transparent presence of a pale ghost, while Travis's "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" perpetuates the type of sensitive poetic lament that gets kids beaten up on playgrounds.
On Life for Rent, Dido is still the Skipper to Beth Orton's Barbie, mixing her fragile vocals with trip-hop beats and ethereal synths. On the album's vacant first half, she suffers a severe case of the blands -- even the single "White Flag" lacks memorable hooks, interesting arrangements, and lyrics that aren't simply trite platitudes. Only tracks such as "Who Makes You Feel," a Morcheeba-like sultry slink; "Sand in My Shoes," a twirling uptempo club anthem with sizzling conga flavor; and the crisp trip-hop and strings of "Do You Have a Little Time" save Rent from being an unmemorable mess.
The Scottish quartet Travis, while never achieving Dido's dad-rock crossover in the States, nevertheless was almost too mired in the drifting, cuddly ether itself on 1999's The Man Who. On 12 Memories, though, the band shows more bite than it has since its 1997 debut.
Sharp barbs of guitars mark the self-explanatory "Peace the Fuck Out," while tooth-baring background noise snarls on "Somewhere Else" and "How Many Hearts." The band also cops the occasional lyrical 'tude: For every song retreating into comforting sentiments ("Love Will Come Through"), there's a "Re-Offender," which details an abusive relationship, or "Paperclips," on which Fran Healy croons "I don't wanna be like you anymore/I don't wanna see your face anymore." The in-your-face jangle and harmonies of "Beautiful Occupation" and pensive piano and string-laden "Walking Down the Hill" radiate confidence -- and the knowledge that Memories is Travis's best album.