Sometimes, the worst thing your favorite band can do is put out a new album. After all, the new stuff could be terrible. Maybe your favorite singer-songwriter has decided to load up on sequencers and hire the Neptunes. What if that group you always followed, the one you turned all your friends onto and dutifully place on every mix tape, decide that there's still some useful material to be scraped from the bottom of the rap-metal barrel? It's enough to ruin any relationship. Of course, all your favorite band needs to do to assuage these fears is to put out a quality record.
Such were the fears with which I confronted Gomez's latest release, Split the Difference. Watching the group's rising musical trajectory over the last seven years and three albums, I feared they were due for what stock analysts call a market correction After all, their previous work possesses the rare quality of being both well thought out and experimental (the latter a term the group admittedly loathes). They're like the Counting Crows, with less self-importance. But there's always the possibility that Gomez will simply run out of substance, crash and burn. Particularly a group that found immediate critical and popular success at such a young age, as Gomez did.
Gomez formed as the merging of two separate friendships in Southport, England. Guitarist Ian Ball and childhood friend drummer Olly Peacock began playing with keyboardist Tom Gray and bassist Paul Blackburn in high school. At University in Sheffield, Gray met slide guitarist Ben Oettewell -- the one with the voice that sounds like Eddie Vedder. The five began recording at a small home studio in Southport, taking turns on the microphone and slowly piecing together a demo tape. The group eventually signed with Hut Recordings, the independent label that released Bring It On in 1998. The album made Gomez darlings of the music press and garnered them a British Mercury Prize. Deservedly so, since the guys can really play. The rhythm section of Peacock and Blackburn is fantastic, complementing melody-makers on guitar and keyboards, and their whole skill far surpasses the players' years.
Gomez's sophomore effort, Liquid Skin, brought just as much attention and praise to the group, although it struck out in a different musical direction than its predecessor. In Our Gun, the group's third LP, demonstrated to fans that although Gomez toured relentlessly, and were more than happy to license a song to a major Hollywood movie now and then, they weren't focused on becoming MTV sweethearts or winning over the top ten spots on Billboard's singles chart. It's as if the five of them had already lived as pop stars in previous lives or alternate universes, and had now been given a second chance to use their tremendous talent to focus on the music without making the mistakes our favorite artists so often do. So while In Our Gun encompasses a wide array of styles that are performed flawlessly, and remain difficult to kick out of your brain, it was far too intelligent an album to receive major radio airplay. Instead, it served to provide fodder for debate amongst fans as to which Gomez album was best, as the group continued to spike out in new directions on an almost song by song basis, like an aural starburst. Of the divergent styles featured on their first three albums, Blackburn says, "We're trying to get elements of different things in on each album. I guess one we used a while ago was the Doors, in terms of mixing it up that way, but I don't think we sound like the Doors".
The more I think about it, the less I had to worry about the release of Split the Difference. The album feels more raw and bluesy than their previous efforts, but not in a White Stripes or Thrills garage sort of way. The truth is, Gomez have used the blues as their foundation from their inception. In the tradition of Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones, Gomez utilize the blues as a springboard to get their ideas across. They're not trying to offer up exact reproductions of T-Bone Walker or Son House. The word springboard epitomizes Split the Difference's opener, "Do One", which catapults you immediately into Gomez's world. Ben Ottewell's husky drone follows dueling distorted guitars, while the outburst of a dreamy acoustic guitar strumming is injected into the malaise. "Do One", like many of the songs on the album, is only about three minutes long, and coasts right into "These 3 Sins". The song introduces a theme that seems to run through the entire album: "We don't want to harm you / We're your friends". A statement that might be taken as either assurance or warning. The fact that it's poured out over acoustic guitars, a banjo, and backbeat you can dance to makes it difficult to find intimidating. As usual, Gomez prefer to speak in the plural, substituting "we" for "I" in the song, and reinforcing the fact that you're listening to a group play rather than an individual singing over instruments. The harmonizing vocals in the chorus help the effect along. How much of this has to do with the fact that Gomez, for the first time, are in the studio with a producer is difficult to say. Tchad Blake, who has worked with Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, and the Pretenders, applies a light touch. While the album sounds significantly different from the previous In Our Gun, it's hard to say who's responsible.
The same group mentality applies to "Me You and Everybody", a lazy jam with psychedelic keyboards and a wiry electric sound built around their trademark acoustic guitar strumming. It's amazing how hopeful they sound when singing about heartbreak. It's not that the lyrics to the song sugarcoat the blues. It's that they frame the breakup in its proper context, like the conversation you want to have with your friend when they're in emotional pain and all you can say is "it will get better in time." Next time you're providing the shoulder to cry on, try turning on this record instead.
There's no denying that "Sweet Virginia" is one of the album's highlights. At six minutes, it checks in as the longest track on Split the Difference. As usual, Gomez wear their blues roots in subterfuge, with a song that sounds like it could be a cover from The White Album. Again, the melancholy is tinged with a melody that keeps your heart from sinking. Gomez embody the reason Wynton Marsalis offers for listening to the blues: that the music functions like an inoculation against despair. Somehow, a little bit of the blues is enough to give your body the power to fight melancholy off entirely.
That said, "Meet Me in the City" is the most full-blown blues number on the album. Perhaps that's because the song covers Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough's original. Gomez still make the number their own, playing it like they were possessed by a slow-moving Orixa over a piano melody that sounds like something off of Tori Amos's "Cornflake Girl".
The psychedelic Babylon of "Silence" fixes up Peacock's distorted drumming with a phenomenal bass line. The influence of the Beatles again is obvious here, mostly in the production values and songwriting. They're not trying to imitate the Fab Four. There's just enough sequencer here to give the song texture without taking away from its rootsy feel.
For sheer abandon, it's hard to beat "Catch Me Up", a tinny-sounding ditty pushed past a slide guitar through muffled speakers. This is another example of Gomez's growing strength as song crafters. Not in the sense that the number features lyrics that are anything special, but in the way the song is structured, sung, and produced.
"Nothing Is Wrong", near the end of the album, sounds like something from Bring It On, with its synth and electric guitar interplay. Its strong lyrics and melody make it a fine choice to place at the end of Split the Difference, reinforcing the fact that Gomez don't waste tracks on throwaways. Members of the group state that they spent a year writing fifty songs for their next record, thirteen of which made the cut for what you'll hear on record. Again, we hear Ian Ball singing that "we're not here to judge you / We want to be your friends". Unlike the first time he sang it on "These 3 Sins", there's something more hopeful here, insinuating compromise. Perhaps that's where they pulled their album title from. What it does do is reinforce Gomez's strengths, that they're such a pleasure to listen to because they hear the past and thrive on it, learning from what musicians did before them, and not repeating all of the same mistakes. The members of the group seem far more focused on creating music than being rock stars. If that's not enough to allay fear surrounding the release of future albums, I don't know what is.