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CD Review: Operating on Autopilot Gomez Undergoes Renovation on Fifth Studio Release

By Sarah Dupuis


“How We Operate”

Produced by Gil Norton

ATO Records

I first heard the English rock band Gomez about a year after they released their critically successful debut album, “Bring It On,” in 1998. Q Magazine, the UK equivalent of Rolling Stone, sends out an annual “Best Tracks of ...” mixed CD to subscribers, and in 1999 that mix included a track also titled “Bring It On,” ironically taken off Gomez’s second studio release, “Liquid Skin.” Q’s mixed CD was packed with some well-established rock groups like Travis, Supergrass, and Wilco, but Gomez’s four-minute contribution managed to stand out right away. Beginning with dissonant, reverberating guitars under sustained three-part harmonies, it then plunges into a rolling, pop-happy, reggae-influenced verse and chorus, and finally closes with a disjointed sitar-influenced guitar riff. The track was catchy — I liked Gomez immediately.

Releasing a debut record as powerful and successful as “Bring It On” had a biting downside for Gomez: living up to the critical acclaim the album generated proved to be impossible on their subsequent albums, and Gomez was unable to meet the expectations of their fans. Then, in 2004, Gomez released their fourth album, “Split the Difference,” a fun offering that reminded me why I’d liked Gomez so much in the first place. Critics agreed, sales boomed, and the sun shone for a day longer. The band toured extensively to support the album, generating an enormous American fan base eager to hear what Gomez would do next. 2006’s “How We Operate” follows up on that success.

Gomez has evolved from the high-paced complicated arrangements on their last four self-produced recordings — while retaining the country licks, unexpected orchestrations and unique vocal harmonies that earned them success eight years ago. Part of this change can be credited to outside producer Gil Norton, who worked on Pixies’ “Doolittle” and Jimmy Eat World’s “Futures.” Norton helps to make sense of Gomez’s five-songwriter setup, and under his influence Gomez has tapped into their pop music ability. “How We Operate” opens up with the acoustically mellow track “Notice,” voiced by a tentative-sounding Ian Ball, one of Gomez’s three lead singers. Ball also voices the surprisingly mature “Charley Patton Songs” later in the album. Fans of Ben Ottewell need not fear — the gravelly, bluesy singer behind many of Gomez’s more rocking singles lives up to his vocal reputation on “Chasing Ghosts with Alcohol” and “Tear Your Love Apart.” Ottewell’s softer tones shine on “See the World,” an optimistic and clever love song in which he proclaims his desire to “see the world and find an old-fashioned girl.” Even Tom Gray, Gomez’s talented-but-oft-hidden third vocalist, wails his British heart out over rhythmic guitars and a pulsing bass on “Girlshapedlovedrug,” which just may be Gomez’s most perfect pop song to date. “How We Operate,” the title track, is most reminiscent of Gomez’s former style. With only banjo and vocals for the first minute, the track moves into a powerful yet fun rock chorus complete with DJ stylings, violins, cellos, and the three-part harmonies for which Gomez is so well known.

The album’s greatest weakness seems to go hand-in-hand with its spot-on pop successes. Creating such thorough and catchy melodies seems to have left the songwriters of Gomez lyrically drained. “Woman! Man!” features a bankrupt chorus of “sha-la-la-la woman, sha-la-la-la man,” and “Hamoa Beach” endlessly repeats “fear: don’t let it take you like it nearly took me, fear!” The obvious lyrical devolution since “Split the Difference” (it featured poetic gems like “why’d I sit on my hands like a book on a shelf where only dust is falling?”) is a disappointing loss, but the melodic pop songs on “How We Operate” more than make up for the album’s paltry contributions towards the preservation of lyrical beauty.

“How We Operate” is by far the most listener-friendly of Gomez’s five studio albums, and one looking to explore the Brit rock band can easily make the record a vehicle of discovery. Its mindless meaning over quirky riffs makes it a fun album, but despite its professional production it still can’t reach the raw exuberance exemplified on Gomez’s first release. Like a B-rate movie starring A-list actors, “How We Operate” is nothing to write home about, but it’s enough to keep Gomez fans happy until the band’s next endeavor — and definitely worth checking out if you haven’t heard them before.