A license to `Operate'

Under the direction of producer Gil Norton, Gomez fine-tunes its songwriting on its most recent CD

March 08, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

They were used to steering the music in any direction that made sense at the time. Who cared about cohesion?

But for their latest effort, the refreshingly focused How We Operate, the members of Gomez decided it was time for some direction. So the British rock quintet reached out to producer Gil Norton, who has overseen hits for Counting Crows, the Foo Fighters and Jimmy Eat World.

"He's a serious disciplinarian," says keyboardist-lead singer Tom Gray. He and his band mates -- guitarist Ian Ball, bassist Paul Blackburn, guitarist Ben Ottewell and drummer Olly Peacock -- play Sonar on Saturday night. "We're a many-headed animal and go in different directions. It's so hard being told what to do. We had to sacrifice that. We've been around for 10 years. You have to be prepared to make some compromises to stay in the game."

The band's sound certainly didn't suffer. By keeping the production clean and frills-free, Norton helped to better showcase Gomez's thoughtful songwriting and solid musicianship. The songs are lean but strong. Awash with autumnal folk-rock tones, the melodies are memorable, Gray's performances believable.

"There was no room for excess," the vocalist says. "It was kind of rough for us, but we got through it. The songwriting aspect we got covered, in a way. [Norton] would force us to be more structured. As songwriters, we're working at our peak at the moment."

When Gomez broke onto the international rock scene a decade ago, the band came with a tidal wave of praise, especially from the notoriously hyperbolic British press. At the time, the unit's blues-suffused rock sound was different from what other critically acclaimed British bands we're doing. Portishead, for instance, explored trip-hop, and Oasis was in a retro-pop bag.

But although Gomez garnered kudos among the critics, the band didn't exactly sell albums by the truckloads. Virgin Records, the company that released the band's first four CDs, dropped them after 2004's Split the Difference didn't generate big sales.

In 2005, the band signed with Dave Matthews' ATO label and released a live set, Out West, that year. How We Operate, Gomez's fifth studio album, was released in May and hit No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseeker charts. The quintet was given a big promotional push last year when the driving, groove-rich title track was featured on an episode of Grey's Anatomy.

Although How We Operate is an impressive, accessible record and another critical smash for the unassuming group from Southport, England, Gray says it isn't representative of Gomez's versatility.

"I don't think as a record it's representative of what we do," he says. "In a great way, it shows us what kind of songwriters we are. But it doesn't show how creative we are musically."

Gray says the homey, folkish tone of the album, as suggested by the warm shades of brown on its cover, is a little too neat.

"If we can take the discipline and apply it to a more expansive, creative kind of sound, then we're likely to make a great record," says the lead singer. "We want to get messier again and have a bit more fun with it next time."

Gomez plays Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., Saturday night at 8. The show is sold out.

To hear clips from "How We Operate," go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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