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Ben Ottewell
Shapes & Shadows
ATO Records
www.benottewell.com


Forget what you know about Ben Ottewell. Forget, for a moment, that he is the gritty, blues-drenched voice of the amazing and eloquently musical quintet Gomez. Forget that he has been responsible for some R'n'B drenched songs over the last decade or so with that band… instead, picture Mr. Ottewell as a softly singing bard, accompanied by acoustic guitars and low-beat rhythms. Do you have that image in your head? Now, forget that too.

Ottewell embarks upon his first solo release, Shapes & Shadows, in this way. The record begins with the strumming of acoustic guitars and a slow rhythm that suddenly, inexplicably, launches into an upbeat and catchy tune and then settles sleepily back into its relaxed cadence. With Gomez, Ottewell has been responsible for some of the most dynamic music of the recent past and his solo record shows no sign of diverging from that pattern. Easing into the driving rhythms of "Lightbulbs", Ottewell uses horns and synthesizers to build moody, earthy soundscapes in between the heavier rock'n'roll choruses as he lays on the beautiful lyrical imagery. It becomes increasingly clear just how instrumental Ottowell is in the crafting of many Gomez songs; while his is not the straightforward, energetic approach to songs, he effortlessly builds walls of sound and weaves in and out of heavier passages, creating within each song a beautiful tapestry of sound and brilliant lyricism. "All Brand New" sticks to a bit more of a symphonic acoustic feel, nicely setting the stage for the old-timey instruments and light stomp of "Blackbird" where Ottowell states simply, "There's that line that I stepped right over/My, oh my, ten times over/ Carried a weight 'round upon my shoulder/ my, oh my, a ten-stone boulder…" The lilting melody line carries as much weight as the simplicity of the lyric, the banjo and fiddle creating a moody scene that could place the tune with 18th Century Appalachian folk music.

"Chicago" moves from stealthy, soft acoustic leanings to full-on, over-the-top weirdly syncopated gritty rock and roll and back again. This song is a conundrum in many ways, the off-kilter rhythm being only one example of such. "No Obstacles" takes a more mid-tempo approach than most of the record, straight ahead and strong, standing in stark contrast to the piano and string melancholy of "Chose". Perhaps the most Gomez-y track on the record is the thickly produced and beautiful "Step Right Back", a song that is filled with the kind of guitars and melodies that make up some of the best parts of his erstwhile band's catalog. The lyrics also take a more obscure route, alluding to things unknown for certain, and relying on Ottowell's penchant for subtle phrasing and imagery. The record comes to a close with the relaxed strains of "Take This Beach", a song that once again recalls Gomez immediately. The tune is slowly lilting and has a certain seaside charm that lulls the listener into a relaxed state of bliss, Ottowell's voice rich and gritty as he slips into his sub-falsetto so perfectly, forming a beautiful melodic arch over the softly fingerpicked acoustic guitar and dense backing vocals.

Ottowell's Shapes & Shadows is nothing extraordinarily groundbreaking when one takes into account all the amazing music that he's made over the past thirteen or so years. If this record came from anyone else, however, it would truly be a feat of songwriting genius and musical brilliance. The way that Ottowell intertwines amazing lyrical lines with beautifully dynamic arrangements and integrates wonderful side instruments into the overall production makes for an amazing record… one that will more than likely garner as many plays as any Gomez record.

-Embo Blake

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