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Bring It On: If Moby Grape had ever met ambient-jazz Tortoise, the result would be Gomez.

Beauteous Swoop

England's Gomez slightly twists a wide range of musical sources

By Gina Arnold

IT'S ALL TOO EASY to accidentally rain on a stranger's parade. I did exactly that a few weekends ago, when a friend took me to a picnic on the swampy banks of the Connecticut River. Inevitably, we ran into a kid with a guitar entertaining a host of preppie college guys with intricate acoustic music, all swirls and curlicues and fanciful psychedelic stylings. Presently, the kid stopped playing. "That's called," he announced, and then, most unfortunately, paused.

"'Embroyonic Journey' by Jorma Kaukonen," came our immediate response. The kid's face fell. He was obviously horrified to find two people in the audience who could name the tunes of lesser members of the Jefferson Starship's solo projects.

Although he thought his song choice was off the wall, it certainly won't be for long. My friend and I knew the song because we're old and hail from San Francisco. But Gomez, a band from the north of England, could have named that tune as well.

Last year, Gomez's debut album, Bring It On, won the coveted Mercury Award at the Brit Pop awards. The Mercury, which goes to the best new record, came as quite a shock to those in the know, though, because Gomez is not only good, it is original. That is to say, the music Gomez plays is allied only to forebears who have never been cobbled together in one such beauteous swoop. Moreover, although Bring It On is a highly listenable record, it hasn't got a hope in hell of ever being heard on the radio. Oasis Gomez ain't. And the band doesn't ape Radiohead either--those two bands being the touchstones of everything English that uses guitars these days.

Gomez plays psychedelic, '60s-inspired blues, but the band is equally fixated on more modern musics, like trance, ambient and acid jazz, only without the synths--groove music played on guitars. It sounds like Moby Grape, if Moby Grape were crossed with '90s ambient-jazz Tortoise.

That description sounds bad, but Gomez sounds good, thanks to lyrics, inspiration and a certain je ne sais quoi that defines the kind of band that isn't tied to its sources but culls them from everywhere at once, twisting them slightly so that they aren't too recognizable.

The guys in Gomez come from Southport, a dingy English old-person resort, like a much colder version of St. Petersburg, Fla., and in their bio, one band member says that their music is "the sound of being surrounded by old age." Perhaps this explains the band's extremely charming lack of interest in hipness. To me, that in itself is hip. Like many bands of their ilk--that is, instant success stories--Gomez seems to have led a charmed life. Legend has it that a mere three weeks after recording a demo in a basement, Gomez was in a bidding war with 30 labels. The war resulted in the very record which won the Mercury award, as well as countless accolades from all over the world.

But the hype, though perhaps heightened with unnecessary hyperbole, is not exactly trumped up. This is a band that people love. At a live show in San Francisco last summer, Gomez showed that it was the real deal: sincere, musicianly, unpretentious ... just great. All rules were made to be broken, and the one that Gomez breaks is my cast-iron law that jam bands are boring.

GOMEZ JAMS, but it's not H.O.R.D.E. material. God forbid Dead or Phish fans get their hands on them, though--they'll lose their minds. Liquid Skin (Virgin) is the band's second record, and as befits one recorded in the same year as the other, it sounds like Bring It On Part II.

The record opens with "Hangover," a song I'd like better if the record company hadn't sent me a lyric sheet: for weeks I thought singer Ben Ottewell was asking "be my helluva girl" rather than "be my hangover, girl." I like my way better, but both are pretty good. "Try anything twice" is the capper to the elegiac "Rhythm and Blues Alibi."

Ottewell's voice blends sweetly with co-singers Tom Gray and Ian Ball, creating one of those perfect harmonic sounds that's almost accidentally resonant. In that way, Ottewell reminds me of R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, whose voice can hit certain frequencies that are impossible not to get emotional about.

Ottewell is also a surprisingly poetic lyricist, writing phrases that go well with his band's meandering music, about subjects that are a little bit left field. For me, an album high is the song "Dire Tribe," the first real anti-drug song I've ever heard in all of rock & roll. Another highlight is "We Haven't Turned Around," a song with an amazing--and lengthy--strings section.

Liquid Skin contains numerous similar surprises, most of them instrumental, or born of timbre or tempo. But a list of Gomez's instrumental inventiveness would get boring--and might be like giving away a key element of the plot of a good movie. If you want to hear the best possible scenario of what can be done with a pretty straightforward array of roots-rock sources and a good imagination, go buy the record.

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From the September 22-29, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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