Amazingly, these (very young) British lads recorded this album before ever even playing a live gig together, and it went on to win the prestigious Mercury Prize for “British Album of the Year.” Deservedly so, it should be added, as the band brings a fresh spin to their evocative brand of (American sounding) roots rock, recalling at various times the Grateful Dead (due to their earthy yet eccentric stoner friendly vibe), The Band (due to their dynamic textures, three stellar singers, and inventive vocal arrangements), Dr. John (due to their funky New Orleans voodoo vibe), CCR (due to a bluesy swamp rock base), Beck (due to their use of acoustic guitars with electronic elements), and Eddie Vedder and Tom Waits (due to primary singer Ben Ottewell, the band’s biggest asset who sounds like a cross between the two). Ottewell’s grizzled vocals are a stark contrast to the smoother tones of Ian Ball and Tom Gray, and this contrast is yet another thing that makes this album (which is basically the band’s demo recorded in their garage!) so interesting. Another thing is its fine songs, including the supremely catchy “Whippin’ Piccadilly,” the utterly gorgeous (if overly long) “Tijuana Lady,” the raucously singable, riff driven “Get Myself Arrested,” and “Here Comes The Breeze,” which starts as a rich ode to classic rock. That it eventually changes completely into a funky jam ending demonstrates the band’s appetite for abstract song construction, a point that’s most obvious on the 9+ minute “Rie’s Wagon,” which is alternately a showcase for the band’s harmonies and a freaky psychedelic jam. Aside from the wonderfully titled “Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone,” most of this album is very laid back (perhaps too much so at times), but it nevertheless was a remarkably assured and organic collection from a band who only figure to get better over time. The only problem is, how are they ever going to top this?
Liquid Skin (Virgin ’99) Rating: B+
Gomez continue to wear their influences on their sleeves while continuing to mix many different elements into what is still a very unique sound that's ultimately all their own. Gomez got it, plain and simple, and though their lyrics aren’t especially significant (what do you expect from guys in their early 20s?) their evocative sound (which I’d cautiously dub “trippy folk blues”) is calling card enough. Besides, the band sounds even more together on this album, as they make ample use of their bigger budget and a much-improved production. That said, the band’s pre-occupation with sound has perhaps caused them to skimp on the songwriting slightly this time around, though this album’s best songs can easily compete with anything on Bring It On. For example, “Hangover” and “Revolutionary Kind” begin the album with a soothing yet funky 1-2 punch that only gets better on (oddly enough) “Bring It On,” another raucously singable, riff driven tune a la “Get Myself Arrested.” Other highlights include the breathtakingly perfect “We Haven’t Turned Around,” a cinematic epic that was fittingly featured in the movie American Beauty, the melodic “Rhythm and Blues Alibi,” and “Devil Will Ride,” the album’s most upbeat song which pulls out all the stops (horns, strings, etc.) along the way. Elsewhere, songs such as “Las Vegas Dealer” and “Rosalita” are less memorable, but the Dead-ish “Blue Moon Rising,” the Alice In Chains-like (!) “Fill My Cup,” and the lushly ambitious “California” are also highly inventive. In short, the songs on the whole here aren’t as consistently stellar as on the debut, and there’s a little too much stylistic jumping around within the songs themselves, which is a little disconcerting at first. However, the band, helped by the chemistry between their three strong singers, are creative enough to make it all gel, and Liquid Skin further developed and expanded the band’s sound into a rich brew that still tastes mighty fine.
Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline (Virgin ’99) Rating: B
Two albums into a career may seem a little early for a rarities compilation, but Gomez have always been an unconventional band who defy expectations. Besides, there’s more than enough quality stuff here to warrant this album’s existence. For example, “Bring Your Lovin’ Back Here” is a loose, catchy rocker in the classic Gomez style, “Flavors” matches a wonderful acoustic melody to equally excellent lyrics (“you were the only fool I ever wanted to make love to”), and “Rosemary” is a slow, hauntingly moody Ottewell showcase. On the more familiar front, “78 Stone Shuffle” is a slower, less funky take on Bring It On’s “78 Stone Wobble,” and the mellotron-led version of “We Haven’t Turned Around (X-ray)” is more ghostly but less epic than the version on Liquid Skin. They’re also both less good, though the fact that they’re so different makes them well worth hearing. So are most of the other songs here, several of which could be labeled “experimental filler” but which are generally interesting nevertheless. The 9-minute “Buena Vista” is another jam-based high point that features gorgeous guitars, while their (rather enjoyable) cover of The Beatles’ “Getting Better” should be familiar to many of you from its inclusion in those Philips T.V. ads. In short, I can see why most of these songs, some of which seem unfinished (“Shitbag 9,” “Shitbag”) or were probably just jokes in the first place (“The Cowboy Song”), weren’t deemed fit for their first two albums. However, as a fan I’m glad I own this “for the fans” release, especially since my version also includes the enjoyable Machismo EP as a bonus cd.
In Our Gun (Virgin ’02) Rating: A-
Gomez are a paradox. For one thing, this British band is relatively unknown in the United States, despite having a sound that is (oddly enough) distinctly American. Secondly, most Americans have heard Gomez, but only as faceless voices singing The Beatles' “Getting Better” on a Phillips T.V. commercial. Finally, the band’s busy mingling of styles makes them a publicity department’s worst nightmare, while concurrently making them a music lover’s dream. In fact, Gomez are exactly the kind of adventurous “do it all” band that we music critics love to tout. Of course, only a select few Americans seem to be reading the band’s lofty press clippings, and In Our Gun doesn’t figure to change the band’s profile any, especially since it has thus far garnered considerably less acclaim than either Bring It On or Liquid Skin. It’s likely that you'll be disappointed at first, too, for this album takes a little effort to warm up to. After all, the band’s rustic, percussive-based sound still takes precedence over radio ready melodies. However, songs such as "Detroit Swing 66," "Ruff Stuff," "Ping One Down," and "Drench" are deceptively catchy, and several other strong songs also stick out once you get to know them. For example, "Shot Shot" begins the album with a breathless rush that (oddly enough) brings to mind Morphine crossed with The Beatles. "Sound Of Sounds" is a lovely, lullaby-like showcase for the band's stellar harmonies, while Ben Ottewell has rarely sounded better (or more like Eddie Vedder) than on "1000 Times." The title track is a beautifully melodic and intense song about the 2000 election, though it completely transforms itself towards the end into a less interesting electronic interlude. This heavy electronica influence is also apparent elsewhere, most noticeably on "Army Dub." The band attempts to further update their sound with a glossier production, and though this was a questionable move (their timeless sound wasn't exactly crying out for an update) they generally manage to twiddle the right studio buttons. Besides, Gomez rein in some of the self-indulgent tendencies that had slightly marred past efforts, and their songs are faster paced and more energetic than ever. Still, though Gomez are gamely branching out and trying new things, the band haven’t abandoned their strengths, as their three stellar singers (predictably, the gruff voiced Ottewell especially shines) and acoustic melodies again carry most of these songs. Other Gomez trademarks also appear, as the band delivers songs within songs, singable harmony vocals, and a funky, groove-based sound. The only thing In Our Gun lacks are any truly classic tracks along the lines of "Whippin' Picadilly" or “We Haven’t Turned Around,” but the album's consistent quality and surprising cohesiveness (given its mishmash of styles) makes it another improbable triumph.
Split The Difference (Virgin ’04) Rating: B+
Despite seemingly being a square peg in a round hole as far as commercial success goes, Gomez are one of the best British bands in recent years. Split The Difference consolidates their status without really significantly adding to their legacy. Perhaps in response to criticisms that recent albums featured too much knob twiddling and production gimmicks, Gomez simplifies their hybrid sound somewhat, with less layers and a more basic style that relies on the standard guitars, bass, drums, and vocals setup. Unsurprisingly, most of these songs are good, and there are lots of catchy, singable choruses, which their last album (stellar though it was) lacked. As usual, most of these songs are rhythm rather than riff-based, but there are some tasty guitars as well, with "Silence," "We Don't Know Where We're Going," and "Where Ya Going?" rocking harder than the rest. "Me, You and Everybody" and "Nothing Is Wrong" have the most radio potential and are my personal favorites, while the strings-enhanced "Sweet Virginia" has an almost Radiohead-esque level of moodiness. Elsewhere, "Do One" features a big, catchy (if overly chaotic; sometimes the band still can't help themselves) chorus, "These 3 Sins" is a short n' lively little ditty that makes me think of Simon & Garfunkel, "Silence" has a catchy harmonized chorus along with the aforementioned big riffs and beats, "We Don't Know Where We're Going" is a moody (again with echoes of Radiohead) yet rocking, electronically enhanced form of grunge, "Catch Me Up" is naggingly catchy even though the vocals seem a little off, and "Where Ya Going?" delivers muscular blues rock with cool rhythms. Alas, as with most albums this one is frontloaded, and the album starts to slide on their cover of Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me In The City," a dreary descent into world music chants that doesn't really work. "Chicken Out" never realizes its potential, either, though it's catchy enough, while "Extra Special Guy" sees a return to form, with a low-key shuffle groove and a sing songy chorus. Of course, along with "Me, You And Everybody" (and maybe "Silence"), "Nothing Is Wrong" is the absolute highlight of the album, but "There It Was" is a slow, dreary ballad that ends the album on a down note. As is often the case, this albums desultory finish makes the overall end result seem like less than it actually is, for the majority of this album is indeed quite good. Perhaps it doesn't hold together as an album as well as it should (unlike, say, In Our Gun, whose knob twiddling I actually miss), and as their most distinctive singer by far I think that Ben Ottewell deserves far more than four lead vocals. Still, Gomez are a band who can do many things well, and though that gets them in trouble sometimes, the results are usually well worth it, and the bulk of Split The Difference is as straightforward as Gomez ever gets, with solid results.
How We Operate (Virgin ’06) Rating: A-
Better still, How We Operate certainly has some positive developments. For one thing, the songs are really good, sounding fully developed and not like they were bashed out during ad hoc jam sessions. Also, though again the band's hybrid sound still incorporates several (sometimes contrasting) styles (country, blues, folk, rock, pop, etc.) within single songs, the songs flow together quite naturally, and they're the band's most easily accessible batch yet, with catchy harmonized pop choruses marking several tracks, including "See The World" (a breezy offering that’s among the band’s all-time best), "Hamoa Beach," "Girlshapedlovedrug," and "Tear Your Love Apart." Other stellar songs such as "Notice" and the title track are moody and poppy in equal measure, while "All Too Much" surges on its rocking chorus. On the downside, dirge-like efforts such as "Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol" and "Charley Patton Songs" drag a bit despite their great title and interesting theme, respectively (not to mention their often evocative music), and "Woman! Man!" and "Cry On Demand" suffer from silly lyrics, though both are still catchy fun come chorus time. "Don't Make Me Laugh," one of several tunes on which banjo plays a prominent role, sounds like Sea Change era Beck (that's a good thing), and the album on the whole is another rock solid outing from a band who have been overlooked since their stunning Mercury Prize win way back in 1998. They're an excellent live band, too, though their previous album, the live double album Out West, was slightly disappointing given that; it's solid enough but basically skippable. Anyway, produced by the notable Gil Norton (Pixies, Catherine Wheel, etc.), How We Operate doesn't make any grand advancements on anything they've done before, but it's a reliably tuneful if not especially adventurous (the quality that made In Our Gun especially stand out) next installment in a consistently impressive career thus far.
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