REVIEW: David Gray: Lost Songs
David Gray: Lost Songs (ATO Records, 2001)
I am well aware that David Gray is positively huge right now. Being the first signee to Dave Matthews' new label has its advantages. Even in the UK, where Mr. Matthews is a bit of a myth, Gray's been propelled to stardom.
And not undeservingly.
White Ladder, his breakthrough success, is a very nice collection. Its songs, acoustic with techno-backbeats, sound like several of his Electric Folk contemporaries. Gray's distinctive voice delivers earnest, melodic songs, and, well, "Babylon"'s got a great hook, 'donnit?
Still, I can't help but feel like White Ladder has a whole lot of window dressing, production stylings meant to transform David Gray from a singer-songwriter to a singer-songwriter with a more rythmic, marketable sound.
Lost Songs is better than that. Sure, there's no way in hell "A Clear Pair of Eyes" will ever be played alongside "Bye Bye Bye," but it's probably better that way. If White Ladder sounds like a hipper version of Beth Orton (goandbuyBethOrtonalbumsrightnow), Lost Songs sounds like a whiter version of Ben Harper. The songs are the focus, not the electronica blips or danceable backbeat. The songs are the focus, aye, and they stand up tall under the strain.
From the first track, you can be assured that this is no glossy, radio album. As with all of the cuts, "Flame Turns Blue" is a low-budget recording from the sessions Gray held between 1995 and 1998, when he was still a starving artist. Its shuffling guitar strum and languorous piano notes shimmer, quietly supporting Gray's rough-honey voice. If there's any real criticism that can be made of the disc (besides at the poor-rhyming, paint-by-numbers "Twilight"), its that the entire album, by and large, sounds like this. We don't have any crazy-eclectic instrumentation here, no sir. Guitar, drums, piano and a touch of organ.
Gray's lyrical prowess is in full evidence. On the standout "Falling Down the Mountainside," he delivers a heart-broken missive, but his every angry word is softened by an unflinching love. "If you were here / the first thing I'd do / is knock you down. / You left me cold / to meet your ghost / all over town. / So grind the stone / the spinning wheel / lock the door / come wash your feet. / Looking back / just like i always do. / I'll go / falling down the mountainside with you." It is an outstanding song, mournful yet adoring.
"Tidal Wave", with its rolling, finger-plucked melody, is a pure love song, and another highlight. Like Nick Drake at his most tender, Gray expresses his adoration in the most simple terms, painting small images of beauty.
The tracks on Lost Songs range from the whinsome to the broken, but never really leave this realm of Mojave 3 and down-tempo Hayden. The two instrumental tracks ("January Rain" and "Wurlitzer") are similarly mellow, and I think Gray is content to explore love and loss, saving thematic exploration for another time. I don't anticipate him pulling a Kid A any time soon, mind you.
Lost Songs is a sublime album for any depressed songwriting junkie, and will fit in beautifully beside Elliott Smith and Van Morrison. Those looking for their commercial fix, however, should look to White Ladder and leave this - a poor, sad man's collection of songs - to those of us who would rather forget that David Gray is now probably rich and deliriously happy.
YLTIYL: Nick Drake, Beth Orton, Elliott Smith, Mark Kozelek, Van Morrison, Damien Jurado, Hayden, Arco, Pernice Brothers, etc.