By Julie Finley
I stumbled upon Gemma Ray a few years ago by taking a listen to her album, Lights Out Zoltar!. It was actually her second full-length album, but the first I ever heard of her. That album was rock-solid, and mighty impressive.
So, its only natural that I’ve followed her career somewhat. I am no expert on Ms. Ray, but I do know this: She writes and performs her own music. She isn’t some pretty face template with a producer and bankroll. Granted, Gemma does have a pretty face, but there is clearly more going on with her creatively, compared to the many other current female performers she has been compared to. Her skills are even impressing fellow musicians who actually have some taste and skills themselves.
She opened for both Mick Harvey as well as Grinderman last year (on European dates, and was hand-picked by both) and recently collaborated with Thomas Wydler, as well as with Sparks. She’s in good company, but it’s solely based on what she brings to the table.
Her current release Island Fire has stayed in the vein of what I liked about her to begin with, but there is a huge difference, too. The difference is evident in the richer production and the omnipresent use of symphonic sounds and a theremin. She has used strings before, but not to this extent. Timpani drums can be heard often in contrast to analog drums, giving Island Fire a very full-on theatric sound. Her tremolo guitar is used heavily in contrast, as well as the layering of her vocals. The results are beautifully harmonious.
One common lyrical theme that is used throughout Island Fire is the idea of natural disasters (in an actual, as well as metaphorical sense). The songs “Alright! Alive!” “Fire House,” “Flood and Fire.” “Rescue Me,” and “Eaten by The Monster of Love” all contain this theme of distress and haplessness. All have their own story and circumstance, too . . . and all are excellent. “Rescue Me” actually has a colorfully animated video to accompany it (like an animated version of the video for “Common People” by Pulp).
Island Fire‘s single, “Runaway,” might be my favorite on the album. It’s one of those songs that will get stuck in your head. It has the perfect balance of catchy melody and chorus, mixed with symphony and cheap ’80s analog, but complemented with a ’60s girl-group sound. This song, as well as “Put Your Brain in Gear” and “Rescue Me,” often evoke that Shangri-Las sound.
The aforementioned symphonic sound also has a shifting focus on particular instruments. For instance, you will hear pitch-bends and slides on the stringed instruments, much like a theremin (and on at least half of the album there is a theremin to be heard in the mix). At some point in this record, you will hear every instrument in an orchestra used, but not all at once. Horns will show up in one, and pizzicato strings in another. It’s clear Gemma has a musical vision that is unconventional, but much welcomed.
I can’t forget to mention her collaboration with Sparks in the classic cover of “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall.” This was released separately from this album initially, but was probably added after the fact, mainly because it sounds nothing like the rest of the album, and is a bit out of place. There is lots of electronic instrumentation instead of acoustic, but it is intriguing anyway. I quite like this collaboration, and it’s take on the original is definitely a departure. You get a sense of urgency with it.
I am hard-pressed to find a song I dislike on Island Fire. Maybe some don’t stand out as much as others, but as a whole, it’s excellent.
Island Fire was released May 29 on Bronze Rat Records and can be purchased from Gemma Ray’s website.