Playing God
Gomez: Liquid Skin

there is a statistic in baseball called slugging percentage. It’s a wonderful tool for distinguishing a power hitter from a slapper. Batting average divides one’s hits by one’s times at bat. No matter if that hit was a home run or a single; it rings up the same. But slugging percentage adds up every base a player has reached by his hits, and divides that by total at bats. If one player hits a single and another a triple, they have the same batting average: 1.000. But in terms of slugging, the latter has three times the value of the former.

If you know baseball, that last paragraph was remedial. But in taking on Gomez’ second album Liquid Skin, I need an apt analogy that expresses the awe I have for this record as a whole, while acknowledging the occasional bum track. There are few perfect albums, and masses of passables. Liquid Skin isn’t all home runs, but it certainly has enough to bring it much much closer to the former than the latter. Nothing against Bloc Party, but singles get you 90 feet. The long ball takes you home.

Me, I just want to make this record shine. Not merely to redeem the reputation of an overshadowed LP, but to toss this record in as my contender for one of the best of the 90s. In terms of modern rock alone, it’d be this and Brutal Juice’s mammoth Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult fighting for decennary dominance. With the Mercury around their necks like a millstone, Tom, Ian, Ben, Olly, and Paul banged out a record shot stupid with transcendent moments: a fog-blues mood piece that temporarily halted their forays into the more peculiar avenues of Britpop. Have yr nostrils puffed out in dismissal yet? Let the healing begin…

1. We Haven’t Turned Around (X-ray) (b-side, We Have Turned Around CD2 single)
Substitute for “Hangover”; the original opener’s celebratory-jam atmosphere allowed the campfire-and-brass of “Devil Will Ride” to complete a marvelous circle. But for a record to truly become classic, it seems, it must be Mysterious, and so I turn to the spare X-ray mix of “We Haven’t Turned Around,” which keeps the mellotron, the bruised guitars, and a key-deployed sample of the cello bit. Ian Mathers, in his Seconds piece on U2’s “All I Want Is You” refers to the Van Dyke Parks string coda as undermining the humanity of the rest of the song. And I feel the same way about the original “We Haven’t Turned Around”: gorgeous string parts, but the song ascends to a height from which it refuses to return. It’s too effing detached, in other words. But now you get to choose: is it a song about the tribulation of expectation? Is it a feint at repudiating the Delta blues? Is it simply their “Glycerine”?

2. Blue Moon Rising (album track 4)
We boost the mood a little, with a swampland creep-up into a Gomez standard trick: dirty riffs with ragged three-parts. Olly’s drumming shines here, as his tremendous clatter propels the transitions between piano drop-outs and verses. A chief complaint about this record is its tendency to meander. Make no mistake, it meanders, but perhaps we can dilute that perception with a second-track rave-up. Some people like that.

3. Bring It On (album track 3)
Another up-tempo workout featuring fantastic interplay on the verses and more sick harmonies. The sitar-like figure at the end is just the last in a series of kitchen-sink drum-kit and guitar treatments Gomez toss at you. The reference to the first LP is a red herring; the song bluffs its way into meaning. I think I can pick out a “Get Miles” reference in the lines “we like quiet nights on the island / We five, battered stars round our heads / We can reach new heights in this silence / We're dragged slowly towards the end…” But really, it’s just a showcase for the band’s sense of tightness and its subtler-than-most use of dynamics. I left this one in its original place for added dilution.

4. Hangover (album track 1)
The original leadoff track gets bumped to the cleanup spot to serve as a transition from loud cockiness to the softer sort (see next track). Lest anyone thinks I’m calling this song a trifle, let me say that this track is an essential trifle, with a keening harmony on “be my cradle” that guts me every time. I would do well to note here that Gomez produced this album themselves, with engineering (and non-credited production) done by Ken Nelson, who later coaxed the organic feel from Coldplay before the gold leaf hardened. A good back-porch scale-back from the density of the previous tracks, until we hit…

5. Revolutionary Kind (album track 2)
Yes, Gomez’s broadside against the Ibiza revolution. Not really a “track 2” in spirit, although its screwface shuffle makes a fine follower to “Hangover.” Even as the club scene has lost its chart novelty and become culturally entrenched, much of the lyric is still pretty biting stuff, even when one stops to consider how much of the band’s output relies on the evocative palette of electronic effects. Ben Ottewell starts things off detached enough, but by the third verse he’s raised his voice and tipped his hand. It’s bitter but it’s playful, too, and when he sardonically begs the kids to “keep staring down the sun,” he wraps around that final word like he finally understands the attraction.

6. Wharf Me (b-side, Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline CD)
To cut some of the acid of “Revolutionary Kind.” A delicate, quick sketch of the singer’s inability to do any more than keep his friends occupied for more than a few hours. Kind of an inverse corollary to “Dear Prudence,” if you will. The original spotholder, “We Haven’t Turned Around,” has already been deployed in different guise, and it’s all for the best: its cool loftiness derailed the rest of the album, especially the lilting leer of track 8’s deleted “Fill My Cup.”

7. ZYX (b-side, Rhythm and Blues Alibi CD2 single)
Let’s keep some of the hush up! This b-side to the second “Rhythm and Blues Alibi” single is a deceptively soulless crusher. Tom’s voice is reduced to an electronically-hollowed whimper as he carefully counts the alphabet backwards and sets out some heartbreakingly-accepted dogma:
Love me for money or love me for gain
Love me for beauty or love me from shame
Somebody told me that it's all the same
It's all the same
It’s the aural equivalent of a shrug, and a truly poignant one at that.

8. California (album track 10)
We’ve had three moderately paced tracks where the electric guitars merely augmented various synthesized and acoustic songs. Here’s where Gomez breaks free To Profound Effect. There are two parts to this song: the first, in which Our Band swims through a channel of drum scatters and guitar drone, yielding to the second—a joyous boogie about escaping the frantic stupor of the Golden State. Replete with a gutter blues guitar figure and low-mixed backwards effects—even a bass-and-drum-machine breakdown—it more than captivates for its full seven minutes. Gomez lays all its tricks out here.

9. Rhythm and Blues Alibi (album track 8)
One thing I consistently miss in the new Gomez is their lyrical guitar sense. When I listen to “Rhythm and Blues Alibi,” I hear a band that trusts their six-strings to fill in the associative gaps that the words may not cover. The new Gomez finds itself falling back on pleasant formulae more often than not, tracks like “Catch Me Up” notwithstanding. I hope I’m not the only one hearing these things: how poignantly Gomez doubles back on itself to sing about disappointing Son House; the lullabye-like guitar interplay. Liquid Skin was slagged upon its release for its lack of focus, lyrical and structural. And yes, Gomez hops a lot of rails on this disc, but it is the assured gusto with which they make their jumps that makes the trip that much more fascinating. I’d rate this the weakest track on my reissue, with the lyrics (!) on the chorus putting this one over the edge. The song it replaces is “Rosalita,” a worthless and mirthless piece of acoustic drollery.

10. Pick Up the Pieces (b-side, “Whippin’ Piccadilly” single)
No AWB cover; instead, a leftover from a Bring It On-era single. A better emotional follow; plus, those turned off by the one-two six-minute knockouts of “California” and “Devil Will Ride” will appreciate the length. Here, Ottewell infuses his words with romantic defeatism, is aided to this end by a little echo, and the song rides out on a four-bar electric piano figure fighting for its life among digital squeals and hiss. Sort of like “Layla,” but with a different sort of desperation entirely. Ben’s probably the most gifted vocal interpreter of the band, and when he asks his love “to be here when I fall,” it is the flatness with which he sings “fall” that lifts a placeholder line into resonance.

11. Devil Will Ride (album track 11)
Always been a sucker for brass. But we’ll get there in a sec. The meek little fade-in gives off odors of Gomez in autopilot until that filtered riff starts tearing things to bits, to be followed by a playfully rigid, vocoded pre-pre-pre-chorus. Everything is coming up valedictions as the boys sweetly harmonize about hanging out ‘til the end of the world. I caught me off-guard when I first heard the show-stopping horn chart. A scant but busy six years later, it still rings as a masterstroke while the boys fade back in, clapping and hollering. A great redemptive moment, and one that caps the record off perfectly.

By: Brad Shoup
Published on: 2005-07-18
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