Despite their vastly different pop styles, Gomez and Ben Kweller, the labelmates on Dave Matthews's ATO Records imprint who coheadlined a packed Avalon on a bitterly cold Monday night, seemed on the cusp of the same thing: a genuine mainstream breakthrough.
The British, jam-rock-tinged Gomez has been together for a decade and they are favorite sons back home. But "How We Operate" (also the title of the sextet's latest album), the burnished, banjo-dappled single that's been heard on the hit TV series "Grey's Anatomy," has raised the band's profile considerably.
Kweller, meanwhile, spent the past decade shedding his overhyped, underdeveloped past as the teenage leader of '90s grunge copycats Radish -- an American Silverchair , if you will. Now, at age 25, Kweller has put together a pack of fetchingly clever, smartly crafted pure pop albums that have more to do with Carmen (as in Eric, of Raspberries fame) than Cobain (as in Kurt, of, well, you know). His latest disc, titled simply "Ben Kweller," features the songwriter looking serious and all grown up on the cover. So what if he still resembles the kid with the cool records you knew in junior high? He's an adult now, with the wife and new baby to prove it.
Kweller's breezy guitar-and-piano pop, however, remains unfettered and uncluttered. Performing alongside a bassist and drummer, Kweller jumped between acoustic and electric guitar and piano, and the sound was refreshingly spare. "Walk on Me," a folk-rocking jangler, opened a buoyant 80-minute set spiked with highs such as "Make It Up," whose melody went from pretty to noisy and back again. The schmaltzy piano ballad "Living Life" was a rare misstep, straining for significance and borrowing too much melody from Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." "Penny on the Train Track," though, had a touch of the classic about it, and so too, in time, might Kweller.
Gomez's latest disc emphasizes jaunty, tightly woven pop tunes like the Guster-esque ditties "Girlshapedlovedrug" and the too-cuddly "Cry on Demand." A pity, that -- especially when tumultuous, psych-dosed rock exorcisms like "Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol" juxtaposed so beautifully with brooding mood pieces like "Charley Patton Songs" during its 90-minute closing set. With three front-line singer-guitarists -- and a first-rate pair of sandpaper-scuffed, smoked-glass pipes in lead guitarist Ben Ottewell -- and a jones for expansive stylistic shape-shifts, the enigmatic outfit was at its most compelling when it took darker detours into realms less traveled.