I truly wish it were possible to write about a Gomez album without falling back on mentions of the British band’s obvious debt to American roots, blues, and R&B music. The influence is undeniable, but it always feels like an undervaluing of the breadth of Gomez’s artistry to have to say so. The band’s peculiar level of popular awareness perhaps mandates it; far from ubiquitous, but certainly not obscure, Gomez is a band that has to be gingerly reintroduced by reviewers with every album. Still, a term as limited as “blues-rock” falls woefully short of expressing the subtle impact of their music. The problem is finding a term that does.
Gomez valiantly defies terminology. This tends to lead to an unfortunate preponderance of synonyms for “mix” in reviews of their albums, since any artist that doesn’t seem to fit into a single genre must be mixing them. If they wanted to discourage this, they could find better ways to do it than beginning their latest release on ATO, A New Tide, with a song called “Mix”. That it’s a remarkable sonic mélange that sums up Gomez’s aesthetic beautifully does help a bit: opening with a haunting folk-strum and Ian Ball’s inimitable warble, it picks up Olly Peacock’s adamant snare-beat and some wah-inflected cow-funk guitar as it progresses before bursting out into a grungy rave-out. “We mix together”, Ball eventually lets out over jazzy ride-cymbals, reclaiming the overused verb for his own purposes.
Ball has long been a vital point in Gomez’s three-pronged songwriter attack, but on A New Tide, he and Ben Ottewell (of the famously mossy growl) blow by jaunty pop-purveyor Tom Gray from the opening gun. Always struggling to distinguish himself from his more compelling bandmates, Gray seemed to have carved out a decent niche on their previous record How We Operate with harmony-drenched hook factories like “Girlshapedlovedrug” and “Woman! Man!”. So it’s mildly surprising that he only contributes a single tune to their latest effort (“If I Ask You Nicely”), and that it’s a politely catchy shuffling of his previously-held cards, one that seems out of step with the textured creations of his collaborators.
Give primary credit to producer Brain Deck for those textures. Best known for his work with Iron & Wine, Deck was also behind the desk for Josh Ritter’s magnificent The Animal Years, and brings a similarly rich palette to A New Tide. This is the most experimental-sounding Gomez album since 2002’s In Our Gun, and might even be the sonic equal of the dual debut triumphs of Bring It On and Liquid Skin. Ottewell benefits greatly from the renewed focus on tricky earworms. His first outing, “Little Pieces”, follows “Mix” with a nimbly-picked riff and explosive rock chorus, but like the title track of How We Operate (a soundtrack favorite for medical dramas whose music supervisors evidently couldn’t resist the practitionary pun in the title), it launches into the troposphere in the bridge.
Elsewhere, Ottewell is in a milder mood. “Lost Track” boasts achingly-lovely verses (“I may have built this fire / But you provided the spark”), but stumbles into the cello-backed choruses. “Bone Tired” surrounds more nimble beauty with accordion exhalations and something that sounds like a harmonica jammed into a didgeridoo, while late highlight “Natural Reaction” is a marvel of switched-up rhythms and glimmering CSN harmonies.
Still, for my money, Ball wins the day. From “Mix” onward, his songs are obvious progeny of his criminally-underheard solo effort from late 2007, the sublime Who Goes There. Lead single “Airstream Driver” rides metallic sustains and irresistible rhythm as Ball’s teeter-totter melody flits ahead before charmingly lagging behind. “Win Park Slope” is dreamy and magical, even before Stars’ Amy Millan lends her somnolent pipes to the alchemy. And the understated “Other Plans” is the sort of sensitive, pitch-perfect micro-ballad that Ball tossed off with such cool regularity on Who Goes There, only with a stunning global mash-up bridge sequence thrown in for good measure.
Album-closer “Sunset Gates” gives Ottewell the final word, one he shares with promenading stand-up bass, pulsing guitar counterpoints, and a climactic jam crescendo driven by Peacock’s eternal fills and blaring horns that sputter like wounded hawks plunging from the hardscrabble sky. And so ends another Gomez album, a very fine one, and how can one describe it, ultimately? I’m coming to realize that this is not a band well-served by reviews that pass around generic terms like they’re secret passwords. The best way to approach is to take a stab at describing the beautiful sound they make and then stand back; someone just might decide to listen. But if a term must be settled upon, leave aside the jam-band clichés and make it a unique one. Maybe they’ve forged a new genre: Gomez-rock.