Fairly comprehensive, and loads of fun, this is the way an odds 'n' sods collection should be done.
Gomez released only four albums before parting ways with Virgin, but they recorded much more music than that during those years. A prolific band from the beginning, they've shown uncommon discipline when it comes to keeping their albums focused on a particular sound or vibe -- a trend which hasn't shown any signs of changing or slowing down. Gomez singles are usually loaded with b-sides -- good b-sides -- making Gomez one of the few bands who still make scouring the import singles bin worthwhile.
Five Men in a Hut collects that non-album output from the band's time under Virgin, and while it has the faint whiff of Virgin getting a few more pennies out of Gomez on their way out the door, it's actually -- at two discs and 36 songs -- a robust collection that benefits the fan even more. The Gomez fan who's already tracked all of this material down is rare, so a collection like Five Men in a Hut saves the rest of us a lot of trouble (and expense). There are apparently a few bits and pieces left ungathered after this collection and 2000's Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, but for the most part, the Gomez legacy is now much easier to piece together.
Five Men in a Hut takes the interesting tack of treating itself like a cohesive double album, not content to just string its tracks together chronologically, so songs are gathered together according to how they best fit beside each other. Hut's compilers have the good sense, though, to start off with "Whippin' Piccadilly (Turbo Version)", the band's first single, and the one that unveiled the full promise of Gomez in just over three minutes. With the busking shuffle of its acoustic guitar, the rough edges of its vocals, and its embrace of electronic sounds, that first single introduced a band with something different to offer -- influenced by various sources, but not beholden to any of them.
Naturally, the rest of the a-sides on Hut are equally strong: songs like "We Haven't Turned Around", "Sound of Sounds", "Get Myself Arrested", "Shot Shot", and "78 Stone Wobble" rank as some of Gomez's best. Of the b-sides, highlights include the straightforward bluesy shuffle of "Tanglin'", a pulsating take on Charley Patton's "Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues" (a nice companion to How We Operate's "Charley Patton Songs"), the blossoming ebb and flow of "Silhouettes", and the slinky horn & flute interplay of "Chicken Bones". Even the lesser b-sides, the ones that lean a little too much towards Gomez's tendency to get a little sleepy, are worthy examples of the Gomez sound at its ramshackle best.
So, between the varied personalities of Gomez's proper albums, the off-the-cuff charms of Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, and the stylistic breadth of this collection, the band's willingness to play with their sound is well-documented. The version of "We Haven't Turned Around" found here and on Liquid Skin is much more gentle than Hotline's wide-open spaces version. Heck, the band even started their careers with a remix (the aforementioned Turbo version of "Whippin' Piccadilly"). Also compare "78 Stone Wobble" to the brisker "78 Stone Shuffle". There probably hasn't been a rock band this willing to significantly alter and remix its songs since the heyday of the Cure.
For good measure (and to entice the diehards), a previously unreleased song rounds out each disc. "Old China", a superb piano-driven ballad kept on a low simmering flame, could anchor any Gomez album. Featuring a simple piano figure and percussion that sounds like a cross between rainfall and falling shards of china, it descends into a wonderful middle passage that's a maelstrom of strings, rumbling bass chords, and brooding piano. The uptempo "Diskoloadout" feels like a throwaway in comparison, despite the fact that -- full of distorted vocals, pulsing rhythms, and decent hooks -- it's a swaggering, funky feel-good cut.
The only real complaint about Five Men in a Hut concerns the liner notes, which consist of a quick essay and some graphics. Unless you have a complete Gomez discography in front of you, it's anyone's guess where most of this music came from, since the liner notes don't mention sources or single releases at all. It's not necessary for enjoyment of the music, but it would have been a nice thing to include. Other than that, Five Men in a Hut probably represents the most well-rounded picture of Gomez on the shelves in the way that it offers a sample of every direction the band's tried so far.