Song by Song Review: Gomez’s Ben Ottewell’s Solo Album Shapes and Shadows

So how do you go about getting someone to hear you above the glut? Not the cursory iTunes “audition” style listen; the “REAL” listen … you know, where you actually glimpse into the artist’s soul and hopefully get to spend a bit of time off from being you, and be the artist for awhile?

If you ask Gomez’s Ben Ottewell or listen to his latest solo record, Shapes and Shadows,  he gives many reasons to listen, because you will find many reasons to let the next one play. One of the main being that it’s fun guessing which direction he is going to go. And for each new direction, chalk up another reason. Starting with:

“Shadows” is a sonic journey that starts off way down there and ends up way up here! And all along the trip, it’s not easy to miss a beat of his message, due mostly to the uncluttered production that points to the pathway. But it’s really Ben who keeps your focus, with a voice quality that at times faintly echoes an early Neil Young. With no distractions pulling your ear off of his above-unique character, he moves confidently down the not so worn path, showing that he knows where this safari is leading; at least you think he does. Ottewell also has the gift of being able to paint some very complex musical scenery, containing a back-drop of unexpected color. End result: it’s a no brainer, given an engaging song, this artist clicks. As we move to other titles, his warm and oddly fetching voice provides a security for the listener, warming the soul while he may becomes daring and even a bit icy at times.

“Lightbulbs” As this piece wakes from a dream, it’s melody instantly demands an ear. The instrumental combination alone composes a denseness in the chorus which, when all stirred together, forms a big, rockin’ multi-colored wall. What? That was almost 5 minutes? It felt like 45 seconds, to me. An ethereal trip you will love. MUST play it again.

“Al Brand New” is the one song that shows very clearly why anyone can identify him within three seconds. His idiosyncratic sound is unmistakeable. You hear him coming from 400 feet on a crowded runway; a lucky guy whose vocal genes got along like Jack and Diane. This one makes me want to walk up to a total stranger and waltz forever. That would be “Brand New”  for me.

“Blackbird” takes you out of the previous waltz dream to an almost folksy but curious piece of peace. The instrumental break alone sounds like a modern day Nelson Eddy (think Perry Mason) and the sudden sincerity of the broken-down apology feels and sings of unabashed shame on his part. I could have saved a marriage or two had I heard this early on.

“Chicago” I have a feeling Ben wrote this one for someone in particular in its brevity and its odd descriptions of places. But one fact sings loud and clear. He’s stuck there, he has some tickets out of there, and he’s leaving. He’s on his way home. And it will be a beautiful thing.

“No Obstacles” starts with some un-needed drums that kind of bash in and out of nowhere that reprise in the second verse. Once they get out of the way, it settles into a highly listenable song that can mean many things. The ethereal synth party behind the choruses is fun but never overpowers the message; the message of the age old fight of “don’t go.” But here, he sounds confident that he’s right and she can end her confusion by staying.

“Choose” A sad but true piece that rings of reality and the sadness that goes along with it. Putting that into a vision is a gift that only the best songsmiths have. And Ben is a lucky member of that clique, a group of fortunates.

“Step Right Back” I’m sure “Lightbulbs” is the main stream’s fave, but this one is mine. From the bass line to the drums to the … all of it. When a song speaks to me, I like the feeling that someone else on this planet feels as I do. And the aggressive feel is just what this entire record has been waiting for. So … here it is. Love it.

“Take this Beach” Here Ben gets a chance to really show off his guitar technique, which is usually a bit understated. This is a great way to end the record and at the same time leave the potential fan aware of the sound of Ben Ottewell … and I’m sure willing to give his next more than a fair chance when it does finally show up.

Ottwell’s music is a welcomed and needed departure from all of the “Photoshop for music” records that seem to be glutting a market that hasn’t room but for maybe a tenth of them. Though the tools available digitally are incredible, there is use and ABuse. And it’s real hard to hear Ben Ottewell as an abuser of that potential.

Stream the entire album here.

– John Hampton

John Hampton is a GRAMMY winning producer/recording engineer whose experience includes working on albums with The Dead Weather, The Gin Blossoms, The White Stripes, The Replacements, The Cramps, Alex Chilton and John Kilzer. Read more of his musical ramblings on his blog.

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  • Jason

    Hi. Curious if you liked Gomez’s Ian Ball’s solo record as much? I certainly did.

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