It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray
By Steven Rosen
from Blurt (www.blurt-online.com)
Maybe it’s this writer’s imagination, but does it seem like all the action and edge – all the unusualness and eccentricity – in pop recordings these days come from covers albums? The Bird and The Bee have claimed Hall and Oates as “masters” for their generation; opera star Renee Fleming is going pop with an album featuring songs by Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, Muse, Mars Volta and Leonard Cohen (among others); Flaming Lips have re-interpreted Dark Side of the Moon; soul veteran Bettye LaVette has taken on the Who, Traffic, the Stones and the Beatles on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook; and alt-country/Americana singer-violinist Carrie Rodriguez seems to have bounced back from a major-label career stall with her new Love & Circumstance, an all-covers album of her genre’s better songwriters.
Conventional wisdom would say the moody, hipsterish British rock chanteuse Gemma Ray is too little known for such a venture – people are still just beginning to discover her 2009 album, Lights Out Zoltar! But in a burst of energy around New Year’s Day, she and producer/friend Matt Verta-Ray (Heavy Trash) recorded the 16 covers that comprise It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray. And it’s really a delight – her melodious voice has strength and clarity but also that ghostly, spacey sense of late-night loneliness that David Lynch muse Julee Cruise brought to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. In fact, Lynch musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti is probably listening to this as you read.
The resultant album has a Lynch-meets-Cramps sound – rockabilly melancholy with a modern sensibility. It’s minimally produced with lots of echoey effects and reverb on her guitar (and a horror-movie creepiness on her organ solo on Lloyd Price’s “Just Because”), and rumbling percussion courtesy of Verta-Ray. It’s as if Rick Nelson was really trapped in a “Lonesome Town,” not just singing about it.
The song choice is fascinating. The album reveals its vision of itself with Gun Club’s murky “Ghost on the Highway.” Her dark, seductive version of “Swamp Snake,” from the British blues-rockers Sensational Alex Harvey Band, instantly posits them as Cramps-worthy. The slow, spooky, vocal overdubs on Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” seem to derive from a sadness that Holly’s own “everydays” were numbered. And one wishes Canned Heat could hear her rock-boogie version of Memphis Minnie’s “Looking the World Over,” complete with chain-gang sledgehammer percussion.
Over the course of 16 songs, the minimalism does wear a little. But there is bold playfulness to the record – she puts Rosemary’s Baby’s theme together with Sonic Youth’s “Drunken Butterfly,” and adds a kind of Morricone guitar flourish to the middle of the Andrews Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” The shaky, breathy version of “Hey Big Spender” – from the musical Sweet Charity – is like Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” under sedation. Ray isn’t sarcastic or insincere on her songs – her take on the Gershwins’ “Crush on You,” while cloaked in shadows, also has a sweet quality in touch with the composition’s loveliness.
It’s true that when you cover tunes as obscure as the Cookies’ “Only to Other People,” it isn’t really a covers album per se – it’s as much a personal statement as if Ray wrote these songs. But maybe that’s the point. Choosing the right pre-existing material, and illuminating and enriching it through thoughtful arrangements, can be as much a creative act as songwriting.
Standout Tracks: “Ghost on the Highway,” “Looking the World Over” STEVEN ROSEN
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Review: "It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray"