Split The Difference

The early success of British roots-rock band Gomez stemmed largely from curiosity, because while most late-'90s Britpop acts were trying to revive The Kinks, Gomez was shooting for Joe Cocker. Gomez didn't make a top-to-bottom solid album until 2002's In Our Gun, which contemporized its sound a little, and now its fourth disc, Split The Difference, follows its title's lead, balancing In Our Gun's wiggy experiments with the straightforward rock of the band's original conception. Split The Difference isn't as strong as In Our Gun, but it does show Gomez continuing to explore relaxed, earthy songwriting, with fruitful results.

The album-opener, "Do One," sets the pace with loose percussion, heavy guitars, and rambling Ben Ottewell vocals. The song offers no discernible structure, but at its abbreviated run time, its free-swinging combination of aggression and idleness remains sweetly mysterious. The driving, hooky "These 3 Sins" is much tighter, but the group's clattering rhythms still sound free and easy, and in punchy anthems like "Silence" and "Catch Me Up," the playing sounds unforced and in the pocket. Split The Difference lacks songs as memorable as "Whippin' Picadilly" and "Shot Shot," but though Gomez has replaced the archetypal, Band-derived folk of its early records with a Pearl Jam-like shaggy roar, the easygoing air makes the record breathe more. The ambition is low, but the pleasure high.

More is at stake with Marah's 20,000 Streets Under The Sky. Hailed as the potential savior of old-fashioned rock 'n' roll after its 2000 sophomore album Kids In Philly, Marah took a hit to its reputation when the follow-up, Float Away With The Friday Night Gods, came out too overproduced and bombastic for many of the band's followers. For 20,000 Streets, lead singer David Bielanko and his guitarist brother Serge scale back the sheen, but cling madly and bravely to Float Away's big sound. The opening one-two of the midtempo ballad "East" and the rocker "Freedom Park" makes a bold statement, as Marah fills the tracks with whirling sound—harmonicas, flutes, bells, chants—while David Bielanko describes an evening cityscape of blurred lights, exotic aromas, and real danger.

On its own terms, 20,000 Streets Under The Sky is a stirring piece of Springsteen-esque rock positivism, with most of its 11 songs designed to yank breathless listeners through crowded downtown avenues. But it's hard to fall in love over and over again, and longtime Marah fans may feel that 20,000 Streets doesn't articulate any musical or lyrical idea that wasn't expressed more simply and endearingly on Kids In Philly. More than once on the new record, the Bielankos seem to be trying too hard, though it's tough to knock a record for excessive generosity. With its rich musicality and its cast of romantics, hustlers, and neighborhood legends, 20,000 Streets Under The Sky is a banquet, where most records are mere snacks.

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