Sharps & Flats

English folkie David Gray is a star in the U.K. Can some electronic blips and an endorsement from Dave Matthews win him an audience in the States?

Published March 30, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

A passion for David Gray has been building in the U.K. and Ireland over the past six months. The Irish, particularly, are mad for him. His CD "White Ladder" spent several weeks on the top of the Irish charts and he has sold out concert appearances throughout the country.

You're forgiven if you've not yet heard of Gray. "White Ladder," his fourth album, was released just last week in the United States by ATO (According to Our) Records. ATO is owned by Dave Matthews and Gray is the first artist to be featured on the fledgling label. Matthews undoubtedly hopes that Gray will have as much success in the States as he has had with the Celts. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old Gray, that's not likely unless he somehow convinces four teenage boys to join his band and leap into the fresh-faced feeding frenzy that is American pop music these days.

There are other reasons why "White Ladder" may find difficulty attracting an audience, mass or otherwise. It's simply not that compelling an album, musically or lyrically. Gray's supporters, and there are many, like to compare him to Bob Dylan or Van Morrison. And although it's probably unfair to compare any artist to either of those icons, none of the material on Gray's album comes close to approaching their wisdom, intensity or creativity. More often, he sounds like the hangover from some ill-conceived, mid-'70s singer-songwriter cocktail.

There are no hidden kernels in Gray's songs. No rocks to kick over, no real surprises, no exceptional moments and consequently, no discoveries. Rather, the songs are ponderous, chorus-heavy, repetitive and remind you of tunes you've heard somewhere else, long ago. "Nightblindness," for instance, sounds partly borrowed from Pete Townsend's "Behind Blue Eyes," while "This Year's Love" is a straight piano and cheesy strings ballad that Elton John fans would hold close to their hearts.

"Babylon," the album's most ambitious, and best, song, is catchy, dreamy even, and makes use of some nice electronic accompaniment. (For some reason, a second version of the song, "Babylon II," is also included on the CD, though you have to listen with the utmost care to detect any differences between the two. Surely Gray had other material he could have used instead?) There is also a fairly interesting cover of Soft Cell's "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" that concludes with a nod to soul crooner Morrison's "Into the Mystic."

Gray adds to the album's overall blandness by singing with an unchanging implacability. Each tune is rendered with the same flat emotion. Essentially a guitar-playing, singer-songwriter, he has added minimalist electronic beats and blurts to give the album a contemporary feel -- ` la Beth Orton but the results are hardly convincing. Even Gray seems like he isn't sold on the idea. Midway through the CD, he abandons the electronica experiment altogether and settles back into songs not awful nor obnoxious. It's sad, because it sounds like Gray lacks the imagination to keep the record going. Instead, the whole affair just drips into unobtrusive background music. Come to think of it, he might have a future in America after all.

By Joe Heim

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.


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