With her sultry, soulful vocals, dramatic, expansive arrangements and smouldering looks, it’s something of a surprise that Gemma Ray hasn’t already broken through in a marketplace that’s on the whole been very kind to home-grown female performers over the past decade or so. But while Amy, Duffy, Adele and Jessie have all made it big, this very untypical Essex girl is still plugging away in relative obscurity despite appearing to have many of the attributes for mainstream success.
Island Fire is Ray’s fourth album and sees her returning to the tried and tested formula of her first two records following the stripped down diversion of It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray, her pun-tastic 2010 collection of covers. The songs here first emerged when Gemma was stranded…
mp3 320 kbps | 108 MB | DF | MC
…in Australia as a result of the air travel chaos caused by the infamous Icelandic volcano ash cloud, encouraging her to put her unexpected free time to good use (as well as inspiring the album’s title) before she returned to Sydney last year to finish the record.
With different styles ranging from anguished torch song (Flood and a Fire) to lavish orchestral pop (Bring Ring Ring Yeah) and brooding guitar atmospherics (Make It Happen), Island Fire is something of a restless affair, with its protagonist seemingly a little unsure on whether she wants to be a Phil Spector ’60s girl group singer or latter day Billie Holliday. In her moodier moments, such as the aforementioned Make It Happen, she inhabits similar territory to the critically lauded Anna Calvi, but in contrast, the likes of Rescue Me are more akin to the slightly twee melodramatics of retro revivalists Camera Obscura.
Most bizarre of all is an unlikely collaboration with Ron and Russell Mael on two Sparks covers that round off the album as ‘bonus tracks’. How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall substitutes some of the original’s high camp for a more sinister dynamic, while Eaten By The Monster Of Love is theatrical, ridiculous but rather good fun. Both however sound somewhat incongruous alongside Gemma’s more restrained self-penned material and add to Island Fire’s slightly uneven feel.
That Ray has talent is not in doubt – she blends disparate genres very adroitly and is bold and ambitious. But there’s something missing on Island Fire that prevents the album from delivering to the sum of its parts, something that’s maybe also the reason why she isn’t making that leap forward into the big time, and that’s the songs themselves. Put bluntly, they aren’t quite strong enough to match the scale of her musical vision, lacking the irresistible melodies or effortless swagger to command the listener’s attention like, say, Amy Winehouse did before her demons got the better of her, and somehow bereft of their own unique personality. Ray sounds rather like a lot of other people, but nothing really makes her stand out, something akin to the girl next door with the big voice factor that helped Adele conquer the world.
Of course, not every artist can be expected to shift units by the million, and that’s probably not what Ray gets out of bed for in the morning in any case, but nevertheless Island Fire is unlikely to cause a conflagration beyond those already in the know, despite having plenty to offer those willing to listen.