2006 / Music

Review: Gomez Standout With Faceless, Roots-y Futuristic Rock

British Group Completes Fifth Studio Album

Star quality — the sum of semi-mysterious attributes that when totaled separate superstars from us mere common folk — has always been and will always be the golden ticket of the music world.

Photo: ATO Records

Photo: ATO Records

Adroit fingers, a soulful singing voice, or crafty songwriting skills can take someone far in the industry, but charisma is something that helps in opening doors that can turn great artists into rock stars. Personalities, whether it’s the way that they look or what they say, can help in the marketing of artists. It gives a face to put on magazine covers, and primarily services the business end of the music business.

In the case of British rock quintet Gomez, star quality is something the group is completely missing.

With five highly rated but modest-selling albums under their belts, the band has earned an identity as a consistent but faceless unit dedicated to fusing 19th and 20th Century American roots music with the kind of psychedelia-influenced studio technology that the 21st Century offers. But even though they’ve turned out clever, thoroughly enjoyable albums — and aided by being in something of a niche market — Gomez has made little headway in the public.

Again, their only clear weakness is their lack of someone to bask in the spotlight. The closest parallel to the band would be a group like Los Lobos, who similarly spit out good records and shun having a clear frontman or dominating creative force for a collective musical identity.

Gomez’s latest, “How We Operate,” follows suit. But different from their preceding albums, this record makes inroads in developing a balanced sound. It makes seamless the group’s futuristic re-imagining of blues, folk and country rhythms and instrumentation. And like never before, obvious choruses take a bigger piece of the action.

As was the case with Gomez’s last record, 2004’s “Split The Difference,” the band hired an outside producer to boost the hooks on their new songs and seemingly assist in putting the brakes on their experimental impulses. Their choice, Gil Norton, has the Pixies, Foo Fighters and Counting Crows on his resume, but he leaves few obvious indications on “How We Operate” that his hands were manning the sound board. Instead, Gomez just sounds like a softer, more articulate version of themselves.

Gomez boasts three singers — guitarists Ian Ball and Ben Ottewell and multi-instrumentalist Tom Gray — all with remarkably similar deep, velvety timbres. This makes it difficult to distinguish who from who, but again augments that image of an indivisible group sound. Song by song, the trio can switch from an Eddie Vedder-ish growl to a hipper version of the Neil Diamond croon.

The album’s title track features both vocal approaches. For the verses, it’s Eddie, but for the chorus, it’s all Neil. The song has a sort of up-and-down banjo and mandolin exoskeleton that seems to work independently from the forceful but abrupt rhythm coming from the bass guitar and drums. The track, which is essentially a frustrated love song, builds to a melodic and lyrical head but acquiesces with the endearing chorus.

The next cut, “Hamoa Beach,” takes an identical tack musically, but reverses it. The funky rhythm of bass, drums and wah wah guitar spiral around, but a studio-contorted steel guitar yawns during the heart of the chorus.

The band continually shows a surprising appreciation of different forms and transitions between them — sometimes in the same song — with aplomb. “Girlshapedlovedrug” is a charming, cluttered pop single obviously written by someone not used to aiming for the top of the charts. “Don’t Make Me Laugh” is a weary cowboy ballad. “See The World” is a bright, folk ditty that consists of intriguing guitar and mandolin interplay. “Tear Your Love Apart” features choppy guitar chords and an Animals’ “House Of The Rising Son” keyboard. “Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol” sounds like one of the Billy Bragg songs off the “Mermaid Avenue” records only to be interrupted by a George Harrison guitar solo played with an electric drill.

An identical hissing sound appears during the pre-chorus of “Notice,” suggesting the same sense of euphoria. Another interesting facet of this song is that the group appears to address its musical identity problems right in the lyrics. Swept up by an enlivening melody, Ball sings about being ignored and taking opportunities that present themselves (“Another chance gone/We won’t get many more,” Ball sings.) But is he talking about a girl? Or is he lamenting, in code, to music fans who continue to ignore the group? “You never notice,” he sings as a lead into one of the album’s best choruses.

It would be far-fetched to imagine that “How We Operate” will get Gomez any more noticed. It’s a solid, romantic-sounding collection but shouldn’t stir the band any direction from their course as a cult act. But perhaps, it’s for the best.

Do we really need more rock stars?

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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