Ben Ottewell | Shapes & Shadows (ATO Records)

But, unfortunately, on their own Ottewell’s songs blend together, and what seems remarkable as part of a larger musical canvas ends up being disappointingly tedious.

 
 
 
 
As one singer/songwriter in the multi-fronted British band Gomez, Ben Ottewell has established a niche for himself; his powerful baritone and soulful lyrics anchor the band’s bluesy noodling and sometime-goofiness in solid pop ground. Ottewell brings out his earthquake of a voice and effortlessly imparts an oft-needed sense of gravitas, or a bit of compacted weight at least, to the sound and songs of the band. Ottewell’s first solo album, Shapes & Shadows, should be a welcome showcase for that voice and sensibility. But, unfortunately, on their own Ottewell’s songs blend together, and what seems remarkable as part of a larger musical canvas ends up being disappointingly tedious.
 
It’s not that any of these songs are bad necessarily, but, with a couple of notable exceptions, they’re not that great either. Most follow what feels like a strict—and constricting—structure (acoustic guitar alone to open, introduction of quiet lyrics, slight build to the entrance of a fuller, electric sound) that renders the album unfortunately featureless. Consequently, interesting ideas—like a lyrical theme about light that fits nicely with the album’s title, especially on the title track and “Lightbulbs”—get lost. And in the midst of the bland conformity, the punchy standout “Blackbird” and the slinky, groovy “Step Right Back” sound like songs from a different and better album.
 
But beyond all of that, the most regrettable aspect of Shapes & Shadows is that the power of Ottewell’s voice here is itself like a shape in shadows; hints are there, outlines of it can be gathered, but the full figure never comes into focus. Those glimpses ultimately prove to be as frustrating as the majority of the album, but do leave the door open for the much stronger second effort this first could have been, should Ottewell decide again to go it alone. | C- John Shepherd

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