Gemma Ray Lights Out Zoltar! Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

A rare treat from a singer who should be a household name.

John Doran 2009

Gemma Ray should, by rights, be a household name. It would be nice to think that it was only a mysterious bout of blood poisoning (from which she is fully recovered, thankfully) that prevented her from vaulting to success after the release of her last album The Leader. This is wishful thinking however; she’s far too good to get the kind of international acclaim she deserves.

She’s too pop for the purists; too psychedelic for the traditionalists; too overwhelming for folk revivalists. One thing that always derails English blues, country and Americana is the off-putting search for authenticity. The irony of this tendency is that there is nothing less convincing than a man from Huddersfield in a cowboy hat singing in a Texan drawl about rattlesnakes. Ray, who grew up in Essex, doesn’t try and hide her accent, instead playing on it (when not breaking into French, Spanish and occasionally even Welsh – see The Leader’s Hard Shoulder).

While it would be churlish to deny Amy Winehouse her obvious God-given gift in the vocal talent stakes, when stood next to Gemma Ray she is revealed not to be a charlatan exactly, but certainly pedestrian and definitely too much of a copyist to be anything more substantial than light entertainment. Ray takes old musical forms and finds inventive ways of injecting colour and verve into them. On the album’s opener and lead single 100mph (In Second Gear) she benefits from a Home Counties, wall-of-sound girl group backing with lush flourishes of Martin Denny style exotica.

On Dig Me a River – as well as cocking a snook at Cry Me a River, the Arthur Hamilton torch song made famous by Ella Fitzgerald/Julie London/Justin Timberlake (delete according to age and nationality) – she twists the usual woe-is-me blues narrative into something altogether more aggressive. A sentiment which is amped up by her habit of playing blues slide on her beloved Harmony Rocket guitar – not with a bottleneck but a kitchen knife, producing a scree of high pitched, jangling noise.

Everyone remembers Kylie Minogue’s duet with Nick Cave, Where the Wild Roses Grow, right? Well on (You Got Me in A) Death Roll, Ray sounds like a delightfully schizoid combination of both singers simultaneously. This album is a rare treat indeed.

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