In his fifth solo album, Robert Gomez considers things great and small. And in spite of its gravity-bound title, Earth Underfoot soars musically and poetically.
The respected Denton guitarist and Francophile (the local music scene practically owes its awareness and appreciation of Serge Gainsbourg to Gomez) put the record together while finishing his degree at the University of North Texas, wrapping and promoting his fourth record, Severance Songs, and making the sophomore album with Ormonde, his creative partnership with Seattle songstress Anna-Lynne Williams. The duo’s debut album drifted to the top five on the iTunes indie rock downloads.
“When we were recording the record, I was pretty exhausted,” Gomez said. “I was basically at school at 8 in the morning. I’d get out at 1 o’clock and go record until like 1 in the morning, like midnight or 1. And then do that all again the next day.”
Earth Underfoot was funded with a micro-budget of $2,458 on Kickstarter, with the help of about 50 backers. It drops June 10, but Gomez will have CDs available at his local release show on Friday night at Dan’s Silverleaf. It’s also a farewell show, as the musician is moving to Seattle.
Gomez recorded the record with Baptist Generals member Peter Salisbury on guitar, Aaron McClellan on bass, Evan Jacobs on keyboards and piano, and Steve Hill on drums. It’s the band Gomez has been playing with for about a year and a half.
In terms of sound, Earth is a logical progression from his second solo record, Pine Sticks and Phosphorous, and Severance Songs. The meat and potatoes of the record is Gomez’s fluent guitar and soulful poetry. Lush and restrained, Earth continues the artist’s catalog of brooding and colorful songs. It does, however, mark a departure for Gomez.
“It was an interesting process for me because, normally, I’m just by myself most of the time. Recording most of the tracks, track by track, until I have a finished work,” Gomez said. “But this one was really just done live for the most part. I’d go in with my band, and we just went in and we just played live, and whatever came out, that’s just the way it was.”
This is also the first time Gomez has recruited a producer. He and Los Angeles producer-engineer Theo Karon struck up a mutual respect online. When Gomez went to L.A. as a member of Sarah Jaffe’s band for a plum slot on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he met up with Karon.
“We hung out some and I told him, ‘Man, we should work on a record together,’ and he said, ‘I’d totally love that,’” Gomez recalled.
Karon produced, mixed and mastered Earth Underfoot.
“That was another departure for me, to allow someone to basically be in control of the music, and say, ‘This is working, this is not working,’” Gomez said. “And it helps take the pressure off a little bit, because when you’re in there trying to make music, it’s hard to really know if it’s good enough, or if it’s as good as it could be. It’s hard to have any perspective when you’re in the middle of it.”
Karon managed to boost Gomez’s vocals, a boon when considering the artist’s restrained approach to the microphone. In earlier albums, it’s easier to let Gomez’s vocals become more of an instrument than a storyteller. Salisbury and Gomez still give guitar primacy, but it’s a nice change to hear the lyrics without eyes-closed concentration.
Together, the guitarists show a knack for the instrument’s many dialects. The guitar is a democratic instrument. It can speak metal, folk and flamenco. And while Gomez and Salisbury clearly weren’t trying to punch out a world music record, they didn’t make one dimensional songs.
“Out Alive” builds into an alt-rock crescendo during the bridge, and “Two Teeth” could easily dance its way into a folksy jig. “Tersus,” one of a few instrumental songs on the record, uses the guitars like the wheels on a train. In “Tersus,” the star of the show is a moody keyboard effect, a chimey theremin that gives way to electro-acoustic blorping sounds in “Still Alive.”
“I mean, we definitely tried to get interesting sounds,” Gomez said. “I feel like every band tries to get interesting sounds, for the most part. But I think I also benefited a lot from Peter Salisbury’s presence on the record. I think that having two approaches to electric guitar helps open it up a bit. This is a very electric guitar-based record. I mean, there’s not much acoustic on it, which is kind of different for me. Although Severance, I thought, was a bit of a departure in that way as well. But this one is more so in that direction.”
Gomez and the band recorded Earth Underfoot over 10 days at Redwood Studios, the laboratory of Denton’s McKenzie Smith, a founding member of Midlake, and Denton’s Joey McClellan, a touring member of Midlake and a member of Hymns, the band that’s backed the legendary Daniel Johnston.
Gomez said the band went into Redwood and played live, trying to record in one or two takes. With Karon taking care of the engineering for the recording, Gomez said he put his attention into playing and listening to his band.
“Most tracks were all first, second takes,” he said. “There’s definitely times when maybe subsequent takes were a bit more refined, but they kind of lost a little bit of that initial spontaneity, or at least that energy that you get that’s only available, I feel, on the first few, first couple of takes. After a while it starts to taper off.
“So even if it’s not perfect, I feel like its representative of the music, rather than a more ‘perfect’ take that came much later.”
Gomez wanted Earth to be a cohesive record that would articulate what was in his head and heart, he said. Thematically, he said the 13 tracks represent his taking stock.
“I feel a lot of the songs have some of the same words in them. I wouldn’t say they have the same message, but a lot of the songs are coming from the same place — which is basically, you know, here I am now in my late 30s kind of starting to take stock of where I am at this moment. As I approach the midpoint,” he said.
Earth Underfoot is certainly informed by Gomez’s jazz guitar studies, and infused with the work he’s written and played before. But Gomez said his songwriting is a sort of stream-of-consciousness process. And in Earth, lyrics and music were written together.
“Whenever I write music, I try to forget any kind of schooling, any type of influence,” Gomez said. “I never go into it with ‘I’m going for this sound.’ I just try to let it come out naturally. Maybe while you’re in the midst of it and you have some perspective, you can listen to it and sort of see where influences are coming from.
“But I wouldn’t say it’s thoughtless music, but I try not to get bogged down in form or style or genre, or harmony or melody, or anything like that. I’m going to try like anyone else. I sit down with the guitar many times — or an instrument — and I sing something and words come out, and it’s kind of like how everybody does it.”
Gomez said he plans to spend the near future playing and promoting Earth Underfoot. He expects to release the upcoming Ormonde record this fall.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
What: Robert Gomez and his band play an album release show, with opening act Moonbather.
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Where: Dan’s Silverleaf, 103 Industrial St.
Details: Cover is $7 at the door
On the Web: www.therobertgomez.com
TRACK BY TRACK
Robert Gomez, “Earth Underfoot”
“Out Alive” — Gorgeous and yearning, this track is probably among the finest songs Robert Gomez has written. Rhythm guitar and drums are a steady pulse throughout the song. But like a time-lapse film of an opening flower, it bubbles into a bright, slightly messy explosion of guitars. You know that great guitar solo in the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” “Out Alive” moves along that kind of arc. Controlled, measured and then comes a moment of blissed-out, clangy noise. It’s like Gomez went to church, but without the bells and smells — just the sensation of billowing like a mushroom cloud.
“Kaboom” — “We’re two birds on a wire,” Gomez sings on this track, the one that gets closest to Gomez sounding like he might be nursing a chip on his shoulder. Or is it regret? Gomez can come off like a detached observer in his own songs, but not in “Kaboom.” The narrator addresses a close compatriot. Both are “out in the cold, caught out in the cold./Bury the gun, girl. Destroy the evidence/Change our names and burn to ash.” A throaty twang throbs against a hollow-bellied drum. Strings and winds meld with smoldering guitars as the song burns into a fade-to-black ending.
“Ghost” — Gomez considers this track the “problem child” of the record. The artist said he found the tune hard to wrangle, but you’d never know. Like its title, though, this tune doesn’t lurk unnoticed in closets or stay tame. It’s playful, a little unruly, and evocative. It’s one of the album’s uptempo tracks, with tricky little harmonies that, though unexpected, can still remind and delight. Gomez makes subtle music, and “Ghost” is an example of how a song can take up room — like a rock anthem — but without screaming or caterwauling.
— Lucinda Breeding