Progress. That’s all that most of us ask from life. To see that we’ve moved from point A to point B in a positive manner, whether to gain more money, more peace of mind, more happiness or more love. It’s also what we ask of everything around us. We want our jobs to get better or more bearable, our political administration to become more accountable, and albums by our favorite bands to outdo the last release. We ask all of these things, but its rare that any of them actually occur. Despite historical precedence, we continue to insist to hope that, for instance, each U2 album will be better than the last. That’s a lot to live up to, particularly since 1987. But fans and critics alike, yours truly included, continue to expect some kind of progression from one album to the next. I’m not much for advertising, but in this day and age, it might be the only future for rock and roll band to make any kind of scratch. That’s why I’ve somewhat forgiven Gomez for participating in a 3 page Johnnie Walker advertising spread.
The first page of the triptych ad campaign shows what I can only assume is a recreation of the gig poster from which the band took their name. The story goes that the English band was trying to point a friend named Gomez to their pub gig and so jotted out a markered sheet of paper with their friend’s name at the top and the gig info below. People ended up coming to the show thinking Gomez was the band’s name and the rest is history. The second page shows a mid-career gig poster, silk-screened and more professional while the third shows the wall posters made for the announcement of How We Operate, Gomez’s fifth proper full-length album. The ad campaign slogan is “Keep Walking,” or in other words, progression. The problem for Gomez is, does progression mean building on the more experimental pop of In Our Gun, or does it mean returning to the bluesy roots of their Mercury Prize winning debut, Bring It On? What How We Operate ended up being is a little from column A and a little from column B, but mostly a progression in terms of simply trusting in good songwriting.
Tom Gray, Ben Ottewell and Ian Ball still share the songwriting and singing duties, and as always, each has particular standout songs. Ian Ball’s opener, “Notice” is one of those standouts, beginning with brushed drums and acoustic guitar to set the tone for Ball’s relaxed vocal style. Full stops in the center of the song provide some dramatic tension, but it is at about three minutes in when the song goes into string backed and drum heavy pop mastery that we fully realize that Gomez still have it going on. Of course, there are those that think nothing will be as great as their debut, which in England has coined the terms “Mercury Poisoning” and “Doing a Gomez,” but that would discount their other great and wildly underrated works. Raspy voiced Ben Ottewell marks his return with “See the World,” a song not too far off from the press sheet’s description of it being a distant cousin to the Faces’ “Ooh-La-La.” The `sha-la-la’ chorus backup will keep you tapping your feet for days. The Ottewell gem of a title track is one of the best of the band’s career, gothic and anthemic, with a chorus that more than equals their legendary songs, “Whippin Piccadilly” and “78 Stone Wobble.” Imagine Pearl Jam adopting Coldplay’s sense of the dramatic and romantic and you still might not come close.
Ian continues the strong writing he bared in Split the Difference with “Hamoa Beach.” Tom emerges with “Girlshapedlovedrug,” a 60’s era pop classic. So just how did Gomez retain their cohesiveness and creativity after five albums? For one, they enlisted the help of producer Gil Norton. Norton not only produced the legendary Pixies, but he also started out as an engineer on Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain and then helped out everyone from James and Belly to Ed Harcourt and the Foo Fighters. His production advice, in how to plug up holes in songs and what to change, proved undoubtedly valuable as the finished product is one of the tightest and slickest Gomez album to date. “Charley Patton Songs” is one of those tracks that show both the bluesy origins of the band and the new more accomplished place in which they now reside. With spare moments punctuated by dramatic piano and drum flourishes, the song lives in both the experimental and the sentimentally reflective. “Don’t Make Me Laugh” is Tom’s shining moment on the album and acts as the closer, ending on the sweetly sung words, “So long…goodbye.”
It’s not as much of the shock felt when OK Computer gave way to Kid A, nor is it the different side of the same coin as All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is. Instead, Gomez’s How We Operate has the aptly fitting title which exemplifies the `playing music together in a room’ philosophy of one of the most consistent bands in England today. With this fifth new album, Gomez proves that sometimes progress is made by not worrying about finding a particular sound, and simply delivering a timeless collection of stellar pop rock tunes. What’s also great about Gomez and How We Operate is that in this era of iPods, you can split up the Ian, Ben and Tom songs and make three separate EP’s to fit your tastes. As if they needed another sly Beta Band reference.