Ben Ottewell, 'Shapes & Shadows' (ATO)
There aren't many albums that can appear in my work mailbox and make me gasp like a fanboy, but here's one of 'em. Ben Ottewell's day job is singer for rootsy Brit-pop band Gomez, a sprawling, jammy crew beloved in the U.K. — but still a cult fave over thisaway. The band is tricky and cryptic and political, unafraid to experiment to the point of losing listeners. And yet, whenever Ottewell takes the mike, his otherworldly tenor, both haunted and romantic, grabs your heart and pulls you close. On Gomez gems We Haven't Turned Around and See the World, Ottewell proves to be singular talent, with a voice that borders on outsider art. It's not for everyone — but it should be.
For Gomez die-hards and Ottewell freaks (I'm a member of both small, worshipful clubs), the arrival of Shapes & Shadows, the singer's debut solo album, is major news. In stores on Feb. 15, the nine-track record opens with a bit of muscle — the title track and Lightbulbs cook with Oasis fuel — a rockin' edge that isn't quite right for Ottewell's heartbreaking end-credit delivery. It makes you wonder if Ben bolted his boys because he wanted to show off a few tattoos and scars.
But soon enough, the all-world singer, who co-wrote the album with childhood friend Sam Genders, delivers the soul-kneading stuff, including sweeping acher Chose, a gauzy beaut meant to be played as you gaze out an airplane window and embrace the drama of your tumultuous life. It's a tremendous song with a string-kissed finish, and Ottewell's slightly broken voice, both childlike and weary, is in ideal form. Almost as good is album closer Take This Beach ("Hello, Green Eyes, it's good to see you again . . ."), which is another Ottewell specialty: the bittersweet joy of looking back. It's a killer for sure, and will have you visiting your past's shadowy corners. Not many singers can take you there. But not many singers can also bring you back better for the journey, too.
The First-Grade Playlist
I've concocted more than 100 playlists for this Pop Life column, synching songs with topics as diverse as Jiffy Lube (Under the Hood, Billy Ray Cyrus), flimsy diaper-changing tables (Hot Mess, Ashley Tisdale) and the teeth-decaying joy of Frankenberry cereal (Breakfast in America, Supertramp). But for all the oddball challenges I've set, coming up with a playlist for my 7-year-old daughter's first-grade class has proved mind-cramping.
A few weeks ago, Kid Lulu's teacher asked me for songs to play for her giddy young charges. It was curious timing: I had recently been lambasted by prickly mommy readers for writing about the songs I play for my kids on the way to school. (Ooh, Sam Cooke, how subversive.) But I gladly accepted the new task. Maybe Lu would finally think her dad was cool. Or at least less dorky. It was worth a shot.
When I started to dream up appropriate songs for first-graders, however, I froze. First of all, they needed to be G-rated. They also needed to have a singable chorus, a positive message and, most importantly, a cool factor. (As wicked critics, 7-year-olds make music scribes look like Care Bears.) Sure, I could spin a bunch of Bieber, and the juniors would flip for it. But wouldn't it be more rewarding to include songs from pop's rich past and make 'em dance like crazy?
I can't say I did it all by my lonesome. When I went to my Facebook pals for help, suggestions poured in from all corners of the globe. They pushed a lot of Disney and Nickelodeon, but for the most part I cherry-picked songs that had cross-generational appeal and a bit of history.
So herewith, a playlist for my daughter and her classmates at a smart, savvy school in St. Pete. I'll hand-deliver the CD later this week. Have fun, boys and girls. And if you're good for Ms. T, there just might be a few surprises at the end of the playlist . . .
1. Three Little Birds, Bob Marley
2. Three Is a Magic Number, Schoolhouse Rock!
3. Shout, Otis Day & the Knights
4. Hound Dog, Elvis Presley
5. Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry
6. The Rainbow Connection, Dixie Chicks
7. Rockin' Robin, Jackson 5
8. Bleezer's Ice-Cream, Natalie Merchant
9. Peace Train, 10,000 Maniacs
10. Octopus's Garden, the Beatles
11. Yellow Submarine, the Beatles
12. Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha, Sam Cooke
13. Come On, Let's Go, Los Lobos
14. Accidentally in Love, Counting Crows
15. Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper
16. Good Vibrations, Beach Boys
17. (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?, Elvis Costello & the Attractions
18. Whip My Hair, Willow
19. Magic, B.o.B. & Rivers Cuomo
20. Baby, Justin Bieber