Ben Ottewell | Shapes & Shadows (ATO)

Fortunately, Ottewell’s music shines brightly through the harsh stage lights. Shapes & Shadows combines his forceful tenor with passionate songwriting.

Ben Ottewell has finally left the protective nest of his British band Gomez. Shapes & Shadows is Ottewell’s debut studio album as a singer/songwriter/ guitarist. The album represents an appealing musical departure from the group, where Ottewell shares vocal duties with two other band mates. With three singers in one band, you can imagine how an artist’s musical creativity may need a challenge, especially after fifteen years.
Fortunately, Ottewell’s music shines brightly through the harsh stage lights. Shapes & Shadows combines his forceful tenor with passionate songwriting. Ottewell collaborated with Sam Genders, a close childhood pal from his youth in Bonsall, England. Together with Genders, he crafted a reflective, tightly woven nine-track album.
The opening track “Shapes & Shadows” is a smart and sophisticated introduction. Beginning with beautifully delicate vocals and simple acoustic guitar strumming, the record draws the listener in. “What’s the town like where you grew up, did you drink from a golden cup, Archimedes on your shoulder, every day a little bolder, smooth those lines away,” croons Ottewell. Drawing on historical references from the famous mathematician and as far back as Socrates’ allegory of the cave, Shapes & Shadows displays intentional songwriting power.
An early favorite is “Blackbird.” Reminiscent of Ottewell’s performance on the Gomez song “Get Miles,” it’s got a bit more swagger. The uniquely gruff vocals, bluesy guitars and angry fiddles lean more to a man from the Mississippi Delta than from the middle of England. Apologetically, he sings “Come home blackbird, come home, I am sorry for what I have done…this time I swear to keep you warm.”
Thematically, Shapes & Shadows seems to be quite personal and reflective of the past. Keeping with this idea, “Chicago” has a blue, somber tone with the words, “I’m stuck here in Chicago, the only wind that blows, blows from back home, it fills the sails of this morning, even though I’m rising here alone.” Melancholy permeates and reminds listeners of being bitterly homesick for a green spring amidst a harsh white winter.
“No Obstacles” brings the tempo back up and a much more hopeful and encouraging Ottewell sings, “you going to find out, it’s time for you to strike out.” “Step Right Back” continues the pace and looks back on a past relationship. The sentimental line, “Where you run to I don’t care, just take a piece of what we shared,” is very fitting.
Shapes & Shadows ends rather bittersweetly with “Take This Beach.” Lyrically, the song takes you to a place in your own thoughts that you may or may not want to go. “Hello, green eyes it’s good to see you again, following the lights to where we last got in, swallow my pride, the roaring of the sea, till winter sweet as spring takes this beach.” Ottewell’s voice is smooth and softened, showcasing his brilliant vocal control.
Shapes & Shadows successfully establishes Ottewell as a solo artist in a time when many musicians try to branch out from their roots only to fall hard on the iTunes single market floor. The art of making songs a collective whole, worthy of downloading together has not been lost here, thankfully. A-| Mary Beth Hascall
RIYL: Gomez, Brian Vander Ark, Cameron McGill, Wilco

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