When I mentioned to a friend that Gomez had a new album coming out, he shrugged and said: “They were good once, but they went stale quicker than a loaf of Tesco’s economy bread.” Now that seems a bit harsh to me, but he does have a point: neither of their recent albums have come close to scaling the quirky heights of their earlier work.
How We Operate is the fifth album from a band still probably best remembered for their Mercury prize-winning eclectic, genre blending debut Bring It On. They were adept at plundering a vast range of American influences – blues and country in particular – and filtering the results through their very British sensibility.
The follow up, Liquid Skin, covered pretty much the same territory, their casual good humour excusing some of their more obvious stylistic borrowings. But they lost their experimental edge for 2004’s Split The Difference, and with it their way.
This new release does not see them find it again, though to be fair it has its moments. After a couple of inauspicious opening numbers, it takes the insistent and atmospheric title track to provide a reminder of what this lot are capable of at their best. The song puts Ben Ottewell’s distinctive ‘old-man-in-a-young-body’ vocals to good use, combining them with a dark, chugging beat and a sliding chorus riff that The Smashing Pumpkins would have been proud of – and curiously it works. And though it occasionally resembles early hit Whippin’ Piccadilly, the jaunty, harmonica-driven Hamoa Beach is equally successful; quirky and endearing.
Current single Girlshapedlovedrug is on shakier ground. A sweet, solid pop song about a girl who “spends her days in a violent rage”, complete with summery harmonies, it’s undeniably catchy, but ultimately bland, a calculated chunk of commercial radio fodder. Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol is a better effort, far less formulaic, with its moving bluesy vocals that swell to a crescendo.
For all its intriguing touches, How We Operate remains a very episodic album, containing a handful of great moments but no truly great songs. In Charley Patton Songs, a dramatic percussive interlude elevates an average track into something more memorable.
Hastily sketched lyrics frequently scupper initially interesting songs, the band dip into the cliché bucket all too frequently (case in point: “hope shall spring eternal through a multitude of sins” from Woman! Man!) My internal pedant wants to get out a red pen and scrawl ‘could do (and have done) better’ on the album cover.
Gomez’s latest offering contains flashes of invention but that’s all they are: flashes. It’s not a return to form by any reckoning; there’s too many slip-ups like Cry On Demand – duff lyrics, duff song – but it’s still an enjoyable, well-crafted album. Solid rather than spectacular.