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Gomez

+ {Ian Ball} + {Operation Aloha} + {Ben Ottewell}

Purveyors of Britpop blues dripping with Americana, these lads were actually from the Merseyside. Their rootsy, retro 70s sounds – like a hybrid of LOWELL GEORGE, The BAND and TOM WAITS – was much in debt to the whisky-throated chords of lead singer Ben Ottewell (one of three!), whose boyish, bespectacled looks captured an unsuspecting but appreciative audience. From GOMEZ’s Mercury Prize-winning debut set in 1998; that beat off opposition from MASSIVE ATTACK, PULP and The VERVE, the unassuming 5-piece had several good years near the top of the rock/pop tree, though US listeners were unflinching and posted AWOL for a whole decade.
Formed 1996 in Southport, England, they almost immediately trimmed their name from Gomez, Kill, Kill The Vortex. Long-time school friends Ian Ball (vocals/guitar) and Olly Peacock (drums/synths) were the main crux until the latter noted that he’d an affiliation with former neighbours Tom Gray (vocals/guitar/keyboards) and Paul “Blackie” Blackburn (bass), whilst Ball had befriended Chesterfield-born Ben Ottewell (vocals/guitars), whilst studying at Sheffield University; the 5-piece were now as one.
Together they worked on composing songs that bore no resemblance to the effervescent Britpop scene. A home-recorded tape of the band found its way into the hands of record shop worker and former COMSAT ANGELS member Steve Fellows, who almost immediately became their manager. He in turn set up time in a Sheffield rehearsal studio in which he invited a plethora of A&R men to witness the unique talent of the band. After a fortnight, over thirty record labels (some from the US) were showing signs of interest, although Fellows and his protégées opted, in September ’97, for Virgin Records offshoot, Hut (then home to The VERVE).
Once they’d utilised the considerable engineering talents of Ken Nelson, GOMEZ self-produced the soon-to-be chart-bound Top 10 debut set, BRING IT ON (1998) {*9}; promoted by quirky Top 50 entry, `78 Stone Wobble’. A critical success also, its highlights were opener, `Get Miles’ (gruffly reminiscent of The BEATLES’ `Come Together’), and subsequent hit singles `Get Myself Arrested’ and `Whippin’ Piccadilly’. The delicate and delightful `Tijuana Lady’ had reviewers salivating over their gruel and coffee, whilst they must’ve thought that JOHN MARTYN had walked into the studio for `Make No Sound’, or for that matter a similarly over-reaching BECK for the 9-minute `Rie’s Wagon’.
Summer 1999 saw two brand-new GOMEZ tracks: `Bring It On’ (surprisingly not part of the debut) and `Rhythm & Blues Alibi’. They both hovered around the Top 20, while parent follow-up set, LIQUID SKIN {*8}, rocketed in at No.2. On reflection, the band might’ve been better to wait a little longer, but such was the dearth of their compositional forte (i.e. the Top 40 `We Haven’t Turned Around’) that they could afford a little wobble here and there. Grunge-rock had taken a major blow when NIRVANA’s Kurt Cobain opted out, and at times GOMEZ sounded as if they’d swallowed a sedated PEARL JAM pill or two.
Prior to that difficult third album proper, GOMEZ stopped the proverbial gap with ABANDONED SHOPPING TROLLEY HOTLINE (2000) {*7}. Ostensibly a collection of the usual B-sides, live material and outtakes, this record merely served to underline the quintet’s talent by transcending the implied second division quality of such material. It saw a cover of The BEATLES’ `Getting Better’, though only the US version filtered in tracks from the recently-issued mail-order-only EP, `Machismo’.
IN OUR GUN (2002) {*7} was a welcome return for GOMEZ. Still not surpassing the initial brilliance of their debut, the boys had a good shot at recreating that timid, stoned and gruff sound. Even more stoned here, with a lot of sonic dub influences thrown in for good measure, these romantic-orientated ballads didn’t seem too out of place (i.e. the title track). However, the production was as smooth as a polished stone, and songs such as moderate hit singles, `Shot Shot’ and the double-header `Sound Of Sounds’ & `Ping One Down’, could get a little too rustic for their own good. Despite these small gripes, GOMEZ delivered one of the most enjoyable and entertaining records of the year, despite Pitchfork’s reviewer having a bad day at the office so to speak.
SPLIT THE DIFFERENCE (2004) {*7} – co-produced with Tchad Blake – fulfilled their contract with Hut; another rootsy Top 40 return verging on the side of country and psychedelia, and featuring minor hits `Catch Me Up’ and `Silence’, alongside a cover of JUNIOR KIMBROUGH’s `Meet Me In The City’.
The Southport quintet fulfilled another one of their retro-rock fantasies by playing three nights at San Francisco’s legendary concert hall, the Fillmore; collecting the highlights for their Independiente debut, OUT WEST (2005) {*7}; dispatched in the US by ATO Records. From the sombrero-psych artwork to covers of TOM WAITS’ `Way Out West and NICK DRAKE’s `Black Dog’, the live double album of hits and near misses effectively drew the dots between their Anglo-mariachi-Americana aesthetic.
An aesthetic that top producer Gil Norton tampered with on 5th bona fide studio set, HOW WE OPERATE (2006) {*6}; the man smoothing out the vocals and filtering at least some of the band’s rootsier influences; a formula that just missed out on their career-long quest to break the Stateside market. Tom Gray’s evocative vocals were shining through on the likes of `Notice’, whilst Ben’s larynx was offered the proverbial cough syrup for failed single, `See The World’. The harmonies and instrumentation drew comparisons to WILCO and R.E.M., and with Britpop left in the shadows of a once-great scene, the Americanized GOMEZ (all but the harder-edged `Tear Your Love Apart’ and `Girlshapedlovedrug’) were more than apparent on tracks `Charley Patton Songs’ and `Hamoa Beach’.
Although there were signs that cracks had appeared by way of multi-instrumentalist IAN BALL’s extracurricular activities via Australia, with Gelbison off-shoot Lionel 6 (alongside the Kahn brothers Edo and Nadav), his own album in 2007, WHO GOES THERE {*6}, did not curtail the grooves of GOMEZ. The record was certainly in the spirit of his main act, but released only in America (best bits: `Automatic Message’, `The Elephant Pharmacy’ and the title track), its folk-y undercurrent bypassed his own roots.
Released only a few months prior to Ball and Peacock’s other moonlighting project OPERATION ALOHA (2009) {*5}; featuring musicians from MAROON 5, PHANTOM PLANET et al (and issued on Rocket Science), the jet setting GOMEZ returned to the studio; albeit separate ones, to dispatch the rather polished pop/rock-flavoured A NEW TIDE (2009) {*6}. Uncanny as it sounded when one thinks how defining they’d been a decade or so ago, the Brian Deck-produced record bettered its UK chart position when it entered the Top 60. Accusations of sell-out were bandied about in the lower echelons of the music press, but basically their KEANE-meets-DAVID GRAY approach was worthy of inspection at least; check out `Little Pieces’, `Natural Reaction’ and `If I Ask You Nicely’.
It was the turn then of BEN OTTEWELL to flee the nest so to speak. Recorded in L.A. with TUNNG’s Sam Genders, SHAPES & SHADOWS (2011) {*6} had its moments in the foggy folk of `Lightbulbs’, `Blackbird’ and `No Obstackles’.
The far and distant GOMEZ felt they could conjure up one further set in WHATEVER’S ON YOUR MIND (2011) {*7}, and although sales weren’t quite up to scratch, many reviewers gave it the thumbs up. And co-produced this time around by PHANTOM PLANET’s Sam Farrar, the 5-piece had managed to balance between bedsit blues and chamber-pop cheer (e.g. the title track and `Options’, `Our Goodbye’ and `That Wolf’).
With GOMEZ on an indefinite hiatus, IAN BALL unveiled his second solo set for Dispensary Records: UNFOLD YOURSELF (2013) {*6}. BEN OTTEWELL, meanwhile, was back in action on 2014’s RATTLEBAG {*6}, an organic spread of country-folk tracks that connected him to the streams of foggy mountain dew, albeit over-flowing with a husk and a hue that could be best described as EDDIE VEDDER versus RAY LAMONTAGNE (e.g. `Red Dress’). In its rockier but acoustic Led Zep III moments like `Starlings’, `No Place’ and `Edge’, Ben had settled into his own easy-going modus operandi.
The ghost of GOMEZ was fading fast when OTTEWELL’s third venture, A MAN APART (2017) {*6}, was dispatched by Sunday Best Records; Genders was again on hand to co-scribe. Its rich textures belied the Americana back-porch way of life, whilst the reflective singer-songwriter and his backing band just breezed through `Own It’, `Watcher’, `Steal Away’, and the title track’.
© MC Strong/MCS 2000-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2019

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