A singer with potent pop sensibilities, packaged exquisitely and uniquely.
Martin Aston 2012
It’s hard to improve on Bronze Rat’s description of their own Gemma Ray as a “torch-singing, guitar-taming, pop-noir maverick”. The Essex girl born Gemma Smith was PJ Harvey-like in her infancy, but today is something like a sumptuous pile-up of Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Françoise Hardy, Helen Shapiro, The Shangri-Las, a Harmony Rocket guitar stroked with a 8” carving knife and some other indefinable strands of DNA, the whole resembling some future ideal of rock’n’roll vintage.
Her voice follows suit, shaped by restraint rather than melismatics. Add the strangest bonus-track icing on this particular brand of lush, steel-capped exotica – namely two collaborative covers of tracks by the equally maverick Sparks – and you have an artist clearly in a field of one, and quite brilliant dancing by herself.
That such a singular and idiosyncratic talent confounds audiences is a shame, as Ray has such a potent pop sensibility, and Island Fire – the follow-up to 2009’s Lights Out Zoltar! (discounting 2010’s covers album It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray) – represents a smoother amalgam of her unique tendencies, without diluting an atom of them. Wrapped in velvet strings and a keyboard with a Theremin setting, Alight! Alive! is like a fever dream in a fairground that you can sing along to. Put Your Brain in Gear is a beguiling mix of sugary and savoury girl-group dramarama that Morrissey would surely tap his foot along to, and Runaway is as catchy as Del Shannon’s song of the same name.
Elsewhere, Troup de Loup is prowling and precocious with a middle-eight of woozy Mariachi brass, and Fire House is a ballad interlude that balances its dreamy allure with a hazy, haunting mood possibly born out of her love of Sparks’ latterday minimalist-pop mantras. The closing Sparks covers are fun, and there’s clearly a meeting of maverick minds, but their inclusion makes 14 tracks in total and should perhaps be consumed in a separate setting, leaving Island Fire’s 12 beauties on their own.
Ray is a shining example of creating your own world and inviting the listener in with tunes you can whistle after the first play. The only shame – no, make that a crime - about Gemma Ray is that she’s not headlining venues like the Royal Festival Hall instead of Upstairs at the Garage. People, to borrow the title of Island Fire’s heavenly peak: Make It Happen.