Gomez is one of those bands that, like a cat being forced into a pet carrier, struggles against being placed in any one category. Is Gomez a blues act? Space rock? Prog rock? Latin-tinged alt-country? Somehow, the answer to all of the above is yes. Yet despite this crazy-quilt approach to making music, the British band has managed to create a cohesive and original sound rather than just a pastiche-style amalgam of various elements. In a musical climate wherein the word "experimental" is akin to "Yoko ain't heard caterwauling like this!" how does Gomez manage to tinker musically while still being accessible?
"You've got to know when something sounds shit, it has a bit of taste about it," says singer Ben Ottewell. "There are times when we get a bit self-indulgent, but normally, taste prevails. It gets harder and harder to come up with something that sounds fresh four albums down the line."
This type of discretion is a talent the band has learned to hone in its four short years. Theirs is a Cinderella story of sorts in the annals of major-labeldom. Influenced by everyone from Tom Waits to Pearl Jam to Beck, Gomez began while its members -- Ottewell, guitarist/keyboardist Tom Gray, guitarist Ian Ball and drummer Olly Peacock -- were still attending college in a town near Liverpool. They recorded most of their first demo, Bring It On, in Ball's garage and eventually passed it on to a musician-turned-record-store-clerk who, unbeknownst to them, had serious industry connections. Less than a month after that friend began shopping the tape, Gomez began entertaining offers from labels in Britain and the United States.
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Bring It On -- basically a remastered version of recordings from the garage sessions -- was the surprise hit of the year when it was released by Virgin in 1998. The album's blend of sample-heavy alt-rock, jaunty electric folk and Southern blues-tinged jams caught the ears of both critics and new fans worldwide. Gomez won England's coveted Mercury Prize for Album of the Year in 1998, beating out the likes of the Verve and Massive Attack; the band also snagged Q Magazine's Best New Band titles and two awards from NME, including Best Newcomer. At the Q awards, John Lee Hooker told the world that he "[couldn't] find no defect" in the Gomez record.
All of this was rather an auspicious commencement to a career spawned while Gomez's members smoked pot in a garage in the middle of England.
One short year later, Gomez followed up with Liquid Skin (named for a first-aid product that is a favorite huffing substance among British teens), which the band began recording three weeks after the completion of Bring It On, and much of the vibe from the debut remains intact on its followup. In no big hurry to finish the album, the boys fiddled around in the studio with toilet-paper rolls, fire extinguishers and underwater microphones -- with the tape machines running. Those elements added to the eclectic sensibility that had made Gomez famous. In an interview on the band's last tour, Peacock admitted that part of the group's creative process involved liberal use of found objects. "If it's lying around the studio and it sounds good, we just use it," he said. "We'll hit or use anything or sing down anything. It's usually through accident that we find our sounds."
Liquid Skin carries Gomez's hybrid-happy torch, especially on tracks like "Bring It On," a complex triple helix that intertwines the vocals of Ottewell (the baby-faced slide guitarist with the gruff cigarettes-and-whiskey voice of some ancient Delta bluesman), Ball and Gray.
A collection of outtakes and rough cuts, Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, came in late 2000. And then Gomez disappeared. Until now.
Recorded over the course of two months at a large manor house in Gloucester, the group's third official full-length, In Our Gun, is everything it should be: mysterious, exciting, and plain old fun. It opens with the bottom-heavy, Morphine-esque "Shot Shot," an exuberant, confident clang-banger of a song with enough momentum to push the whole record. Not that it needs to: All of the links in this thirteen-song chain are equally strong, thanks in no small part to Gomez's commitment to extensive dabbling.
A new feature of the Gomez sound is a sort of pseudo-electronica (see "Rex Kramer"), a departure from the nebulous "new acoustic movement" label critics have previously tried to slap on the band. The players, who wrote and produced the record themselves, seem to have recognized a Gomez motif, which has so far provided a slightly predictable framework for their records. Previously, they would rock fully for three songs, then take it down a bit on the fourth track, then lather, rinse and repeat. This time, they've turned that formula on its ear. Even the slower songs have breaks that will rock your socks. The title track, for example, is a lush, languid, yearning affair that picks up in its last quarter, turning itself into an electronica-infused dance mix.
"That's kind of the basis that we work on -- keeping things fresh," Ottewell reiterates.
The Gomez boys are becoming shrewd planners, as well. A band with three lead vocalists would have to be, really. Singer Ottewell's gruff voice is so distinctive and adds such a specific vibe to a song that he wisely sits back on tracks like "In Our Gun," which requires a lighter vocal touch.
"A lot of it's to do with really simple things, like the range of the song, what key it's in, what fits best...the rhythm of the song," Ottewell says. "Ian's a lot better rhythmic singer than I am, so with songs like that, I just let Ian sing it. But that's not always the case. Sometimes you have to go with what sounds best."
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"What sounds best" seems to be a point of contention between critics on both sides of the pond. While the majority of American reviewers have shown slavish devotion, British scribes have been mostly underwhelmed with Gomez's latest.
"There's a bit of ill feeling toward this album in the British press, but nothing really savage yet, so that's good," says Ottewell. In fact, the biggest criticism of Gomez so far is that its music is the emotional equivalent of junk food: There's nothing of real substance for sentimental types to chew on. Indeed, with songs like "Whipping Piccadilly" (about going to a Beck concert and whacking a shoelace against the Piccadilly train-station sign), "Tijuana Lady" (with its nonsensical lyrics like "enchilada desperado days") and "Ruff Stuff" ("Come back/I've been hangin' around in smack bogs, baby"), Gomez isn't exactly exploring the same territory as its tear-soaked countrymen Radiohead and Starsailor. But the criticisms don't bother the band much.
"We don't really listen to [the critics]. It's not going to change who we are or how we make music," says Ottewell. Besides, the boys have greater challenges to face. "Getting over hangovers rates pretty high. And football matches within the band. A member of our crew broke my toe in a challenge." (As he says this, a crewmember duffs a football at his head.) Come to think of it, it would seem incongruous for a band so committed to having a good time to churn out weepy paeans to love lost or the futility of urban existence.
For the time being, however, Gomez is committed to the road. The band is currently touring in support of In Our Gun, providing a rare chance for American fans to catch furious on-stage explorations of its material. Jam haters, take heed: This is no group of Dead wannabes. While a Gomez show does feature extended middle-eight rearrangements of some songs, it's all tightly controlled and surgically precise. And considering the band is already planning its next album, to be released sometime next year, what better place to explore new material than in the fertile realm of live performance? Sounds like a good time, indeed.