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Alternative-type mavericks with a sound which can readily be deemed undefinable in the same way that the likes of The BETA BAND, SUPER FURRY ANIMALS and The FLAMING LIPS defy lazy categorisation, south London indie torch-bearers ATHLETE caused the “marmite effect” between their legion of fans and discerning muso pundits.
Formed in Deptford early in 2000, long-time friends Joel Pott (vocals/guitar), Carey Willets (bass), Tim Wanstall (keyboards) and Stephen Roberts (drums) limbered up in style with their eponymous debut single; often referred to as “The Westside EP”. Released in March 2002 on Regal Records, the lead track earned a Single Of The Week award from Radio One’s Jo Whiley, with follow-up `You Got The Style’ entering the UK Top 40 a few months later. Having engendered a major label deal with Parlophone-EMI, `Beautiful’ and `El Salvador’ continued their minor hit run. ATHLETE’s Top 20 parent album, VEHICLES & ANIMALS (2003) {*7}, was unsurprisingly the kind of loose-limbed, horizontally chilled noodling that could only have been made in Britain, with gloriously insinuating hooks and midsummer harmonies easily taking up the slack.
In fact, if there was a songwriting Olympics, ATHLETE might well’ve run away with a few medals: early in 2006, the Top 5 single `Wires’ (about the premature birth of Pott’s new-born baby) scooped an Ivor Novello award for Best Contemporary Song, a cool track which hailed from acclaimed No.1 sophomore album, TOURIST (2005) {*6}. Like COLDPLAY with exercise-induced endomorphines, ATHLETE’s slo-mo chart run continued with `Half Light’ and minor hits `Tourist’ and `Twenty Four Hours’.
It was clear that although signed to Astralwerks in America, the group’s “Saff-London” pop appeal would lie strictly within the confines of Old Blighty; the poignantly-titled BEYOND THE NEIGHBOURHOOD (2007) {*5} divided the critics into two factions: ones that hated them, and ones that put up with them. It’s fare to say that most of these same critics probably gave them short-shrift after one listen doing the dishes, but ATHLETE were their own worst enemies: a band without much identity and charisma beyond their, er… own neighbourhood. The strongest track, `Hurricane’, could only muster a peak position of 31, while the mirror-ball-cool of `Tokyo’ was the band’s poorest seller of all.
Finding a sympathetic berth at Fiction Records (home to SNOW PATROL), the once-mighty ATHLETE could only stretch to a Top 20 place for fourth set BLACK SWAN (2009) {*5}. Inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s best-selling book of the same name, the changing tides of the music industry hadn’t helped sales of their prospective pop singles, `Superhuman Touch’ (a minor hit) and `The Getaway’.
As the group looked tired and weary after a “Singles 01-10” compilation totally failed to register in the charts, ATHLETE were working out their next plan of action; as of late 2013 and, with only a handful of recent gigs behind them to boost a comeback of sorts, the quartet looked to be falling away from the pack.
© MC Strong 2004-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Nov2013

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