GOMEZ LEAD VOCALIST Ben Ottewell tries to channel Tom Waits through a gritty Grant Lee Buffalo croon and ends up sounding like an indie version of Joe Cocker. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but, like Cocker, the Liverpudlian Ottewell truly hits stride when his band covers the Beatles. Gomez's take on "Getting Better" (impossible to avoid in a recent slew of Philips commercials) allows little flickers of humor to penetrate the grim façade displayed in last year's Liquid Skin and 1998's Mercury Prize winner, Bring It On. Chock full of alternate cuts, covers, and B-sides (and, for a limited time, a bonus EP), Hotline showcases the band's experimental tendencies in a playful hodgepodge.
The lighter mood is refreshing, because Gomez makes grabs for studio brilliance so eagerly and so often that they sometimes settle for only the vaguest hints of an actual melody. (They are a rock band, after all.) For instance, the tune "Rosemary" almost reaches a spooky, Rain Dogs-reminiscent groove, until Ottewell begins a sleep-inducing chant over a plodding organ. This tendency toward creating ephemeral dream states with masterful engineering distracts from the songs themselves. Instead of losing yourself in the music, you just get lost--especially in nebulous, pointless jam sessions that make one suspect the lads had left the actual songs in the van outside the studio. "Steve McCroski" ambles into dissonance so quickly that it's about as shapeless and boring as an unplugged lava lamp.
To be fair, these are B-sides and rarities--also-rans by definition. Yet even Gomez's best tracks lack the feeling that the song you're listening to actually means something. Each composition uses unique elements (trippy dubs, rocksteady beats, "Strawberry Fields Forever" mellotron), but somehow no one song really distinguishes itself from the others. While technical prowess does a lot to promote Gomez as serious musicians, the music that reaches our ears doesn't always seem trustworthy. All too often, their groundbreaking style obscures the actual songs in the cloud of its dust.
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