Familiar to a faithful following as the most recognisable voice in Mercury Prize-winning Southport five-piece Gomez, Ben Ottewell has ventured far further than Manchester’s Piccadilly station – the subject of a right ol’ whipping, you may recall – to record his debut solo album. All the way to Los Angeles, in fact, where he worked alongside co-producer Will Golden and, subsequently, Liars and Warpaint mixer Tom Biller to shape these nine tracks into their final forms. Not exactly touched by the Californian rays in terms of tone, there’s a definite difference between the mischievousness of Gomez, particularly on their first two LPs, and this rather more mature and heartfelt set.
Ottewell swiftly imposes himself on proceedings, showcasing a voice with greater depth than some fair-weather fans of past ventures may have given him credit for. There’s a real richness to his words on the album’s lead single, Lightbulbs – a richness that’s roughed-up at the edges, for sure, but its core is warm and sincere. Come the next track, All Brand New, his gentle sighs are burdened by a tangible emotional weight. He may be referring to "a hot summer breeze dancing on warm skin", but the song’s delicate design is a million compositional miles away from the rollicking West Coast rock purveyed by so many since the 1960s.
Typically sparse, these acoustic arrangements – co-written with Sam Genders, formerly of Tunng – allow plenty of space for Ottewell’s voice to dominate. But when they grow busier, the mood changes – No Obstacles is a simple, but effective, song about overcoming odds and aiming for whatever prize illuminates the spaces behind one’s eyes. It ensures that Shapes and Shadows isn’t quite the singularly paced affair that so many man-and-guitar discs prove to be. Step Right Back is a pretty waltz of a folk-rocker that seems to touch upon the topic of separation from a loved one – though studied metaphors convey some ambiguity – and gentle finger-picked closer Take This Beach is a haunting curtain-down that lingers in the memory. A comparison to Nick Drake, an artist regularly misplaced in critiques, fits comfortably here.
With Gomez still a going concern, this solo effort – five years in the making – is very much a side project finally realised. But Ottewell should consider a follow-up, as there’s much more to recommend here than on recent releases by other indie band singers turned so-so solo artists.
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