[20 November 2008]
British rock has dwelt under the long shadow of the Beatles for 40 years, and has thus had to struggle all that time with the unconscious reality that the key mass idiom of the faded imperial culture was basically filched from the racial underclass of their rebellious former colony. British musicians have dealt with this burden in many different ways, but none quite as curiously as Gomez. Perhaps as a multiple-songwriter outfit from the Merseyside steeped in classic American blues, jazz, soul and R&B, Gomez were particularly equipped to tread where Britrock’s giants had already been. Many of their contemporary peers have a better claim to the Beatles’ mantle as world-changing rock stars, and many more replicate the Fab sound with greater alacrity. But as is evident from their 1998 Mercury Prize-winning debut Bring It On, which has received a handsome 10th anniversary reissue from Caroline Records, Gomez are the Beatles’ spiritual heirs, in many ways.
Gomez, like the Beatles, hijack the warm russet tones of Americana, but adapt these elements to a British perspective. This influence has no more direct iteration than in the crackling, powerfully bluesy voice of Ben Ottewell on Bring It On‘s opening exercise, “Get Miles”. The groove beneath his vocal is practically a trench, balancing technological modernity with rustic repetition in a manner that has come to define the Gomez aesthetic. But Ottewell’s soulful growl blasts a hole through the dense tapestry like a shotgun shell: “I love this planet, man / but this planet is killing me”. It’s equal parts Delta porch wail and steelworker’s union choir tenor, and it’s constantly, instantly striking. But Ottewell can go lovely as easily as he can go punchy, crooning over folksy plinking guitar and chamber-quartet fills in the midst of the minimalist “Make No Sound”.
But, like the Beatles, one songwriter finds a foil in another. Ian Ball’s gentler whine is the emotive McCartney to Ottewell’s bullish Lennon. Though Ball’s compositions tend towards the poppy, they’re rarely merely twee. His singles from Bring It On demonstrate this amply. “Whippin’ Piccadilly” is youthful and brisk and thoroughly British (“there’s not enough hours in a day”), all wavering vocals and jaunty rhythmic strums at first but then breaking down into cascading electronics. Ottewell leaps in for a bit of offbeat harmonizing worthy of the Band: “it all falls down”, he booms out, and he makes sure that you believe that it does. Elsewhere, the groovy “Get Myself Arrested” shares “Piccadilly”‘s themes of winking juvenile delinquency and its fiendish catchiness, but sways with a finely-tuned sing-along chorus of maximum wit: “got some friends in my BMW / trying to get themselves arrested”. It’s got all the attitude of a teddy boy, but elects to use it to send up snide rebels instead of being one of them.
It’s not quite right to call Tom Gray the George Harrison of the outfit, as his songwriting role in Gomez eclipses that of Harrison in the Beatles and diverges stylistically from it as well. More of a McCartney in the live setting, mugging for the crowd and exhorting them to action while the others mostly close their eyes and sing, it’s unquestionable that Gray is a junior songwriting partner on record. Witness his contributions to their hailed debut: “Love Is Better Than a Warm Trombone” (a title that is much superior to the tune) and “Bubble Gum Years” (a goofy title for well-crafted but clumsy bit of harmony practice).
Though neither Gray’s input nor the innovative rhythms lain down by jazzy drummer Olly Peacock and bassist Paul Blackburn can be underestimated, Gomez’s finest moments come courtesy of Ottewell and Ball. As befits a vocalist of his rare, primal force, Ottewell has a tendency to dominate. His “Free To Run” is an anthem sung mercilessly to pieces, that rich Southport growl transcending the middling tempo. “Tijuana Lady” is almost postmodern in its direct deployment of ludicrous Mexican stereotypes, but Ottewell’s impassioned performance turns it into something burnished, lived-in, mournful, and moving.
Nonetheless, when he shares vocal duties, Ottewell cannily modulates his gifts to blend with those of his fellows. Bring It On‘s thesis statement may well be “78 Stone Wobble”, a febrile two-step featuring all three vocalists, a seemingly omnipresent breakdown, and a popping vinyl sample about retro movie stars. “Here Comes the Breeze” is a creative cruiser, seamlessly switching tempo and tone as Ottewell and Ball harmonize on one indelible melodic line after another. Even when the latent jam-band tendencies explode into rambling excess with the nine-minute “Rie’s Wagon”, regular pit stops are made at a familiar chorus to keep the drive from appearing endless.
As any seasoned Gomez follower knows, of course, it’s tough to get a read on the band unless one considers the reams of B-sides, live rarities, and radio sessions they have produced. Fortunately, the Caroline reissue includes a whole disc of them, including acoustic takes on “Whippin’ Piccadilly” and “Rie’s Wagon”, an alternative thesis statement called “78 Stone Shuffle”, some covers (the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and blues standard “Stag O’ Lee”), and plenty of session tracks of varying quality (one of which, “Brother Lead”, would later morph into the bridge for the title track from their latest release, How We Operate). A fuller picture of the band is provided, but then the album they accompany was already fairly full, almost to bursting. The collaboration of distinct talents, the expansive sonic palette, and the solid melodic backbone make Bring It On a rich and essential example of the best that millennial British rock had to offer.