When Gomez released its debut album, Bring It On, last year, the group immediately drew favorable comparisons to everything from the Beatles, to the Band, and Beck in its native England. The band won the U.K.'s coveted Mercury Prize, a slew of other music biz awards followed, and the album went platinum in its home country (sales of 300,000 copies). But for most Yanks -- save a cadre of sympathetic rock critics -- Gomez was hardly international news. Granted, the group did score a massive hit in the world of TV jingles with its cover of the Beatles' "Getting Better" for Phillips TV. But aside from the high-profile product push, the band went all but unnoticed on these shores. Given that, the relative level of anticipation surrounding the release of the group's second album, Liquid Skin, seems a bit odd. Historically, well-hyped British bands that fizzle across the pond are nothing new (think Swing Out Sister, Johnny Hates Jazz, Stone Roses). That's not to say that Gomez isn't a good band -- it is -- it's just that aimless is probably a much better description. Still, Liquid Skin does have its share of worthy moments.
Singer Ben Otwell's unique rasp navigates the percussive touches on "Las Vegas Dealer" as well as the acoustic lilt of "Rosalita" to good effect. On "Bring It On," a hypnotic drone quickly gives way to a catchy pop chorus that in turn mutates into a bluesy midtempo stomp. Whether they come midsong or midnote, such seamless shifts are what Gomez does best. But unfortunately, the moments where that type of musical sleight of hand works effectively are few and far between.
Songs like "We Haven't Turned Around" and "Rhythm & Blues Alibi" seem to wander endlessly. And while the trip may have its fair share of sights, chances are you'll lose interest before getting to the ultimate destination. The band does deserve credit for its daring in piecing together seemingly incongruous styles and sounds. But often, this sonic eclecticism tends to teeter on the brink of pretension: The sitar lines on "Hangover" mar an otherwise enjoyable track; the nearly seven-minute album closer, "Devil Will Ride," plods along, deluged by overwrought guitars and strings; while the stylistic reach of "Blue Moon Rising" amounts to little more than a quiet, jazzy bore. That song in particular seems to represent the problem with most of the material on Liquid Skin. Like the rest of the tracks, it has a grand sense of dynamics -- rising and falling admirably -- but ultimately it fails to move you in the right way.
The members of Gomez often like to trumpet the fact that their wide range of influences don't include punk rock. That proves to be more of a problem than a selling point. Despite Gomez's ability to create interesting textures and engaging moments, the truth is that it tends to veer more toward the creative indulgence and post-hippie laziness of early '70s music, the very things that the safety-pinned British revolutionaries of 1977 fought so hard to overthrow. -- Bob Mehr
Between the Cracks -- Vol. 1
(Not Lame Records)
Like a good all-ends-well tale, the career rehabilitation of Okie pop king Dwight Twilley began innocuously enough around the turn of the decade when his stone-classic '76 debut, Sincerely, was finally released on compact disc. Containing the Top 20 hit "I'm on Fire" -- to this day the tune, equal parts Elvis, Beatles, and T. Rex, remains a staple of power-pop compilations and mix tapes -- plus a wealth of memorable jangly rockers, rockabilly rave-ups and '50s-style ballads, the remastered set additionally contained a non-LP B-side and three previously unreleased gems. As has become customary for reissues -- no big deal, right?
Wrong. Among Twilley aficionados, the amount of material left in the can, considering what actually surfaced on the five albums that would come out under his name during the ensuing decade, is the stuff of legend. By '87, however, despite having scored a major chart and MTV hit a couple of years earlier with "Girls," the songwriter found himself stuck in L.A. without a record deal. So he busied himself otherwise, first authoring, believe it or not, a best-selling parenting book, then "retiring" back to Tulsa to build a home recording studio. Meanwhile, his fan base never went away, and when a 25-song collection of unreleased tracks titled The Great Lost Twilley Album appeared in '93, followed in '96 by Dwight Twilley XXI, a hand-picked best-of featuring two brand-new songs, speculation ran high that the man was ready to get back on the horse.
Sure enough, Tulsa signals Dwight Twilley's welcome return to the national scene. It contains all the elements that not only are "classic Twilley" but also those which locate him as a pop classicist: lead vocals with just the right mix of leather-jacketed bark and sensitive-guy croon (the Presley equation), plus harmony vocals given nothing less than the vintage John/Paul/George treatment; biting electric guitars on the rockers contrasting with lush layers of 12- and six-string acoustics on the ballads; traditional verse-chorus-bridge arrangements given to complex key and tempo shifts; and enough slap-back echo drenching the material to make lawyers for Memphis' Sun Studios antsy.
The album even commences with an I'm-back manifesto that takes a cue or two from "I'm on Fire"; "Runnin'" has a similar swagger and cool, breathless vibe, that same driving power-pop groove. Following this wise opening gambit, Twilley takes things down a bit with a brace of ballads and midtempo rockers, of which "The Luck" is notable both for its irresistible Tom Petty-meets-Marc Bolan feel and its status as a newly recorded version of the title track to his oft-rumored, unreleased '94 album The Luck. Then, standing as the album's centerpiece, comes "Tulsa." A love letter to his hometown that's not as sappy as some of the lyrics ("Tulsa/I'm depending on ya") or the John Lennon-at-the-piano intro might suggest, the nearly eight-minute number quickly sheds is ballady skin and turns into a savage, shuddering slice of patented Twilley jungle boogie, all great-balls-of-fire keyboards, tense/soaring vocals, and concise, slicing lead guitar from original Twilley Band guitarist Bill Pitcock IV, recently coaxed back into the fold. Also worth mentioning: a minor-key rock anthem/manifesto titled "Miracle" and a devastating breakup number, "Goodbye," which spotlights Twilley's double-tracked singing. (Very Everly Brothersesque, the harmonies are uncannily similar to the vocal pairings he and his old partner, the late Phil Seymour, perfected on the first two Twilley albums.)
Between the Cracks -- Vol. 1 is, true to its title, an archival collection of tunes that almost got away. At the urging/cajoling/bullying of Not Lame Records impresario Bruce Brodeen (one of the most outspoken and tireless power-pop chroniclers on the planet), Twilley dug deep into the vaults as he did for the Great Lost project and came up with a 16song set that, while not specifically the starting point for a novice Twilley fan (hint: Go for the reissues of Sincerely and the second D.T.B. album, Twilley Don't Mind), has its killer moments.
Oh, there are maybe a few frayed edges showing. But not many. A couple of demos from '73 and '76 come off as slightly clunky within the context of the superior '80s material that dominates the record, which isn't sequenced chronologically. In '83 Twilley recorded a slew of tracks, some of them produced by industry veteran Richie Podolor, which at the time were not received happily by his label, EMI. Listening now to a rousing "I'm on Fire"-styled scorcher like "Black Eyes," a brisk, edgy strum-along like "Don't You Love Her" -- both feature backing vocals from a pre-Continental Drifters Susan Cowsill, incidentally -- or a crunching, Raspberries-like stompfest, it's hard to fathom why anyone in love with rock 'n' roll would turn their nose up at them. After all, the hit "Girls" would appear soon enough, and these tunes aren't even remotely divorced from it.
Also included in the collection is a handful of numbers from the mooted The Luck project. Again, to think that material this strong couldn't find a home until now is to scratch your head and wonder where's the justice in this world. (Not, apparently, in the music biz.) "No Place Like Home," for example, is a dark, compelling slice of thumping neo-swamp-rock, while "Oh Carrie," with its heartbeat pulse, subtle keyboard/guitar melody and gently urgent vocal line, has the same kind of bite and radio-friendly sheen that keeps Tom Petty in business.
Cracks, then, along with Tulsa, closes the current Twilley chapter and turns the page for the next one. The story's not over yet, but at the moment, fans have something that's pretty near a happy ending. -- Fred Mills