After hearing Gomez’s debut album, Bring It On in 1998, had I not known ahead of time that they were from England, I would have never have guessed it. The standout tracks from that album, “Get Miles”, “78 Stone Wobble”, and “Tijuana Lady” were all drenched in American blues / roots music and lacked most hints of the existing Britpop phenomenon, especially the tracks sung by gravelly voiced Ben Ottewell. I decided to play the album for my wife who, having spent the better part of a year studying in London, wondered how I could have made that silly mistake. She claimed that they sounded distinctly British, or at least as British as the music that she heard people playing at the time. My point? Gomez is a contradiction.
Looks at recent press photos of the band, releasing their fourth album, reveal true children of Albion. They sport dapper pin-stripe suits, briefcases, brolleys, and bowlers. If they only had surgical masks they might be mistaken for Clinic! And here comes the contradiction again, instead of looking like proper British attorneys or businessmen, they instead look like somewhat menacing droogies out of A Clockwork Orange. Another contradiction is how each song on the new album can be easily pointed to as being either rip-off or homage to specific artists, bands, songs, or albums. What is not to be contradicted is that Split the Difference is a darn fine album with some really standout tracks that stand alongside some of their early shining moments that won them Britain’s Mercury Prize.
The album kicks into high gear from the first strains of “Do One”. Heavy and fuzzy guitar work start off until a Theremin-like squeal jars the rest of the instruments into action. Ottewell’s voice powers the track with Vedderesque intensity. “These 3 Sins” hearkens back to 60’s psychedelic pop instead of the blues that tinged so much of their early songs. And, at the risk of sounding crazy, the song sounds like the Monkees, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Co-vocalist Ian Ball takes over the reins on this one, and indeed on most of the songs on the album. Ball also sings the second single, “Silence”. “Me, You and Everybody” is the closest the album gets to the original Gomez sound we all became familiar with in 1998 and 1999.
The band does a Radiohead imitation with the next song, “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going”, with effects abound and a grandiose style that has been Yorke and company’s trademark. “Sweet Virginia” is easily one of the best tracks on the album and deserves some attention. Not to be confused with the Rolling Stones song of the same name (another British band steeped in the blues tradition), this original sounds oddly like it could fit on an early Eels album. In “Sweet Virginia” the band has created a song that is easy on the noggin when stuck in there for most of the day, and rest assured, stuck it will get with its catchy chorus over weeping strings:
If you know how to run / Sweet Virginia, you should run,
If you know how to play / Sweet Virginia, you should play,
If you know how to sing / Sweet Virginia, you should sing
If you know how to be / Be without me, you should be
You should be…
The coda to the song is also a work of art unto itself. “Catch Me Up” is the first single from the album and is a fun, southern-tinged zydeco pop hit complete with banjo and washboard. I kept waiting to hear Ben Ottewell shout from the back, “Et Trois!” “Where Ya Going?” follows, and sounds jacked from Pearl Jam’s Ten in more ways than one. Ottewell is at his most Eddie-like, while the guitars crunch like Stone Gossard’s and the drumming is as rock heavy as Dave Krusen’s. Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City” is straight out of Tom Waits’ Mule Variations in Gomez’s hands.
“Chicken Out” is another of my favorites. With great backup vocals supporting Ian singing “I’m never gonna get through to you / Who’s gonna chicken out first?,” the song is as driving as the Doves’ “Pounding” from The Last Broadcast.
“There It Was” is the next standout track, sounding like either a Jeff Buckley or Nick Drake song, sweet, quiet, and sleepy. If I was surprised by anything from this fourth release from Gomez, it was that out of thirteen songs, Ben Ottewell, the more recognizable voice of the group, only sang five. Then I realized that my favorite songs from the album were all done by Ian Ball. Go figure. As stated earlier, each song can easily be linked to its influential predecessor, but Gomez makes each song distinctly their own as they pay homage. Split the Difference is a toe-tapper and a head-nodder, and unfortunately, for some reason I get a bad feeling that like great British bands Gene and Placebo, they will be dropped by their American distributors before too long. Hopefully with their mixture of now popular again blues and folk and their intelligent British pop, they will gain a slew of new fans.
The Beta Band- Hot Shots II
My Morning Jacket- It Still Moves
Radiohead- Hail to the Thief