Split the Difference

opener “Do One” announces its presence with a distant, low-fi riff that, on the queue of an electronic squeal, flourishes into a crisp, compressed guitar crunch. Soon after, the music hushes so that Ben Ottewell can sing “Soon as we arrived I expressed my concern / I might have known, I should / Should have run”. From the get-go, fans will notice something atypical here. Ottewell hasn’t changed up his delivery, or smoked the cigarette that pushed his trademark rasp over the threshold of appealing. What’s different, then? Try the band’s approach to songwriting, for starters. Gone are the lethargic transitions and wasted measures that marred 1999’s Liquid Skin and 2002’s In Our Gun. “Do One”, a tightly packed, aggressive fusion of rock and blues, is an encapsulation of what Split the Difference has to offer.

If you recall, Gomez hit the ground running. In 1998, the geeky British Blues Troop’s debut, Bring It On, stole the Mercury Prize from the likes of Pulp’s This is Hardcore, The Verve’s Urban Hymns and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. Talk about setting yourselves up for failure.

Liquid Skin and In Our Gun followed and both failed to impress, though in divergent ways. While Liquid Skin sounded like a forced attempt to recapture the rustic authenticity of Bring It On, In Our Gun failed in its attempt to go in the opposite direction, as the band unsuccessfully supplemented their trademark roughshod blues with a hodgepodge of haphazard high-tech innovations.

In Split the Difference, Gomez has not lived up to, but surpassed, their initial success. Working with an outside producer for the first time (Tchad Blake), the band succeeds in updating their traditional blues with phat bass lines and hard-rock drumming. For years, pedantic scholars have crowed about the debt rock owes the blues. For many, the connection was, at best, archaic. But in Split the Difference, Gomez may just have reconnected the dots for us, integrating contemporary rock elements with their turn-back-the-clock blues. In fusing the two genres, it’s almost as if they’ve—Guh!—split the difference.

From the band’s inception, casual followers have associated Gomez with singer Ben Ottewell, who flaunts such a soulful, authentic blues voice, first-time listeners routinely screw up their faces when an enthusiast tries to explain that the voice they are hearing actually belongs to a pasty, bespectacled Brit. Ottewell easily qualifies as one of the most intriguing voices to have emerged out of the British bands of the 1990s, on an equal footing with such talents as Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke and Rob Dickinson. But where Ashcroft crooned despair, Yorke wailed irony, and Dickinson just sounded really, really sexy, Ottewell’s dusty pipes seemed as if they’d been salvaged from Son House’s grave.

This proved to be problematic. Because Gomez split vocal duties between Ottewell and Ian Ball, the listener couldn’t help but compare the latter with Ottewell, often unfavorably. The logic goes: If Ottewell is one of the top vocalists on the planet, why the hell am I listening to some other guy sing a Gomez song? It wasn’t so much that Ball was a particularly poor singer. He simply wasn’t Ottewell.

Split the Difference solves the vocal disparity not by handing over the reigns solely to Ottewell, but by doctoring up Ball’s voice. Of the thirteen tracks here, only four are sung by Ottewell. But in the face of what would seem to be the recipe for another disappointing effort, this album excels. Ball sounds dramatically improved here, as filters and effects (no doubt Blake’s handiwork) enrich his voice so much, the listener isn’t likely to care who’s singing from track to track.

On “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going”, Ball’s voice is chopped up, as though through a moving fan blade, the effect of which is a gruffness similar to Liam Gallagher’s recent tobacco-ravaged grate. Climaxing in a roaring, distorted bass line reminiscent of Colin Greenwood’s playing, the song is then deconstructed until it consists of little more than a childish guitar strum, only to build back up to legitimate “heavy” rock intensity before disappearing altogether.

“Sweet Virginia” stands out as a crisp, soulful ballad about dissolving a doomed love affair. When Ball sings, “If you know how to run / Sweet Virginia / You should run” as a violin swells in the background, a listener can’t help but feel something. The song ends in a cacophony of piano, violin, bass and drums, echoing the outros on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Perhaps taking a page from their American equivalent, The Black Keys, Gomez also covers a Junior Kimbrough song. “Meet Me in the City” constitutes the weakest link on the album as, probably out of respect to the original, Gomez declines to apply the rock/blues hybrid formula to Kimbrough’s classic, instead playing it straight. As this hybrid characterizes the rest of the album, “Meet Me” ends up standing out as a bit of a sore thumb. Still, we’re talking about a Kimbrough song here, so it’s far from bad.

“Nothing Wrong”, though the penultimate song, is a great place to end. Opening with a riff Slash would be proud of, the tune rides over a terrain of busy drumming before evolving into the welcome sing-along chorus “But we’re not here to judge you / We wanna be your friends, now / And we can make you feel like / Everything that’s gone wrong / Happened for a reason”. Fittingly, this is exactly what the blues is supposed to do.

It seems as though Gomez has pulled off the incredible, successfully reuniting two now distant relatives. To date, Split the Difference qualifies as one of the best albums of the year.

Reviewed by: R. S. Ross
Reviewed on: 2004-06-02
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