That was how I came to learn about the simple majesty of David Gray. Killing 15 minutes in a dodgy, nearly empty American pub waiting to be picked up for the next leg of our holiday. ‘Please Forgive Me’ came on, and suddenly background noise was more interesting.
Now in 2001 Shazam didn’t exist (well I sure didn’t have it) so I dragged my lazy legs across the floor, making sure not to appear too interested – being excited is for dicks right? – and glanced at the jukebox readout and scrawled down the name. The next day I had White Ladder… Within months I had everything he had released to that point.
Since then I have purchased his every release without delay or second thought. Sure his onstage ‘neck-up heavy’ dancing is a bit much, but the man clearly loves what he does, and when you’re one of the best to do what you do; why wouldn’t you?
Singer-songwriters don’t grow on trees, but they often sleep under them. That’s because so many of them sound alike that it’s hard to differentiate between. So, so very many never get the chance. For every Badly Drawn Boy plucked from busking obscurity there’s a thousand Badly Groomed Guy in a dole queue collecting cheques fortnightly.
How did one D Gray manage to steer clear of the dole for two decades and counting?
It’s not quite chronological, but David Gray has an album with songs plucked from a bunch of singles and eps that stands head and shoulders above the entire CVs of millions.
You could pass this off as a Best Of and many so called contenders would hang their head in the shame of defeat.
I could listen to David Gray stand at the back door and yell out for his dog. I could watch him scream at his kids in the park. He could sell tickets to eavesdrop as he orders takeaway food.
Now onto the ‘real stuff’…
The thin and pasty guitar plucker from Ireland with the booming voice got a shot. After all, a guitar and a few pints don’t cost the earth let’s see what happens.
Thankfully A Century Ends wasn’t the ironic harbinger foretelling the end of a short career. The two decades that have elapsed since speak to that.
It’s all quite straightforward music. Earnest lyrics sung in a rough yet textured brogue, backed by simple but efficient musical accompaniment. The title track doesn’t stand out beyond how Gray chooses to spit some of the lyrics rather than sing. Let the Truth Sting follows in a similar vein but shows a little more creativity. I Lead you Upstairs provides a change of pace but no less power despite the slower tempo (and it’s got some lovely “na-na-na-nas” to close it off).
It’s all very admirable and righteous, and It’s all Over ends things nicely, but in truth A Century Ends only hints at how good things will soon get.
1994 – Flesh
A solid album under the belt. A bit more pressure from above. Some more ‘creative suggestions’ from external parties.
Flesh suffers a little because someone mistook ‘power’ for ‘anger’ and ‘volume’, and told Gray to slather on some more noise and rage. This album has more vitriol than any other in the catalog, and it is no surprise when the few down tempo, low volume moments prove the best parts of it.
Lacking a big single is hardly a crime if the album is consistently good, but for the most part this Flesh has been tenderised to the point where it bears little resemblance to its peers.
David Gray has never worked well at pace, his strengths peak at the mid-tempo and dissipate quickly thereafter. Flesh is proof of that.
This album at times sounds like it was made with a lot of money. At times it sounds as loose as a backroom pub gig. If I was to guess I would say that half way through recording someone in a High Up position decided ‘let’s see if we can Sell, Sell, Sell this’…
So what you have is an album of trademark David Gray tunes. Songs that are catchy as all hell but hook free. Lyrics that demand singing along to but upon reflection are incredibly well thought out and intricate. An album with a couple of well produced singles that nonetheless works as a seamless twelve song collection of great songs.
This is an album made by someone who is yet to be weighted down by expectation and demands. An album made by a singer-songwriter, not a contracted artist creating a product.
Sell, Sell, Sell might not stand above a couple of the albums that follow in its footsteps, but it kneels for no one.
The most commercial, with the biggest single (Babylon) and probably the most cigarette lighter in the air moments. I have a tendency to shy away from the view of the masses, but not here. Every track is a triumph, from the opening two tone piano loop of Please Forgive Me through to the final track, White Ladder is a songwriting master class. A classic car with just the right amount of wax.
Simply naming songs is redundant. Just know that there are no weak links. Everyone is free to choose their favourite, and everyone will be right.
When you talk about Mega Sellers that were also credible – think ‘not Bieber, 1D or similar’ this is right up there next to early Coldplay. Actually well above Coldplay.
With White Ladder striking big (as in monster-big: 3 millions plus sales) the record company couldn’t wait for another album to cash in. Again cobbling together a bunch of offcuts and B-sides from the earlier stages of Dave’s career.
Again it’s all great stuff. A little less consistent as you would expect. A little more low key than many of his albums, this is for a quiet Sunday when it’s raining outside.
My first ‘live’ purchase, meaning I was awaiting release. ANDaM was gifted to myself for Christmas (I think my wife even wrapped it without the disc which was already entrenched in the cd player) and played on a loop for days in my house.
Sure it lacks a sure fire ‘concert closer’. I think it will be hard to top Babylon on that one. And the production is a little slicker and more polished but the credibility of the tunes is impossible to ignore.
Dead in the Water is a rock solid opener, the kind Gray writes in his sleep. Caroline a shimmering mid-tempo pleaser that expands on the skills learned with Please Forgive Me. We must wait until near the end of the album for the nuggets, Be Mine turns two words repeated into a monster hook, and The Other Side is a masterful closer that leaves you hanging on even after the final line is released.
A rare album, inferior in many ways to its predecessor yet leaves you wanting another one exactly the same…
Gray knows he has us in the palm if his hand. So he lets the opener Alibi unfurl and build gradually where others might rush headlong… That’s because he knows The One I Love is up next to dispel any thoughts of becoming indulgent. Short perfect power pop with an immediate chorus and excellent lyrics, it sits in the top tier of Gray’s best. (And it has grown men and women yelling “yee-hee” without any self-awareness at concerts.)
The remainder of the album is more uniform than normal. Where other albums pepper us with slow songs, mid-tempo pop-rockers and ballads, Life in Slow Motion remains strangely true to label with the bulk of the tracks at the languid end of the spectrum until the awkwardly titled Hospital Food arrives to wake us up from our pleasant reverie once more.
Four years between drinks seemed longer than ever before Draw the Line showed up. I didn’t realise until now that this either increased my appetite or dulled my critical abilities, as I granted 10 of the album’s 11 tracks ‘worthwhile iPod’ status, an effort not many albums have ever enjoyed. (Song 7 you failed us all.)
The slide guitar on Fugitive helps enliven an already enjoyable chugger, (David Gray almost always nails the opener and closer of every album) Nemesis floats along behind an ethereal guitar noodle and a croaking – in all the best ways – vocal, and First Chance benefits from one of those ‘only D Gray could do that’ booming choruses that you just know rocks in concert. (He hasn’t toured Australia since 2006.)
Oh and you can have all sorts of fun picking who is singing which line in Full Steam, the duet with Annie Lennox. And for the record; Gray doesn’t affect any semblance of feminine vocal for the song.
An extremely solid but not spectacular album.
Hot on the heels of Draw the Line, Foundling had all the hallmarks of cleaning out the closet. No fanfare, a bunch of new tracks announced within months of its predecessor. We had every right to be worried.
Every right and no reason. David Gray burps in rhythm. Opener Only the Wine had charm, spirit and a slightly folky vibe. Gossamer Thread is gorgeous simplicity, and When I Was in Your Heart two and a half minutes for other songwriters to be jealous of.
Foundling might not have been eagerly anticipated. It might not even have been necessary. I’m sure glad it arrived though, and listening to it again today reminds me that I should be very excited that a new David Gray album is nigh…
The most consistently excellent man in music is back.
First up, I was excited to learn that Andy Barlow – half of underrated electronica group Lamb – was producing the album. Thoughts of a half dozen Please Forgive Me’s warmed the cockles.
Opener Back in the World is another sign of hope and optimism, a pleasant and effective lead single that will no doubt receive much airplay on the non-threatening airwaves. even if it’s the kind of track that Gray can knock out in his sleep, and I may never understand the line “I’m naked like a tree / it’s the only way to be”.
Moving on… at some point you look down to see ‘track 6′ and realise nothing else has grabbed you. Mutineers and Last Summer are pleasant, Snow in Vegas’ hokey hook isn’t enough to hang it – but the song isn’t amazing anyway.
And if those songs might be filler, then As the Crow Flies and Cake and Eat It are sub-filler, songs that should have been either hidden as B Sides or scrapped altogether.
It’s rare to get filler in David Gray albums, rarer still to have songs that are plain unlikable.
I don’t know what it is this year. The People Under the Stairs album (The 12 Step Program) underwhelmed. The Roots album (And then you Shoot your Cousin…) plain sucked. It seems that all of my favourites are lining up to disappoint me.
I’ll just say that only Back in the World and the second last track A Girl Like You will remain on the iTunes ‘keepers’, and neither warrant inclusion in any of his many Best of compilations. The rest will only be heard on the rare occasion that I put the cd in my car on a long drive, and then they’ll be vying for attention among hundreds of other albums.
It does and doesn’t help that the two bonus discs are of a semi-recent live set, chock full of his classics and ‘smaller’ songs that all sound great. That the throw in filler trumps the main product at least means something went well, but it’s like going to a boutique bar and finding that while the beer sucks the snacks are great. It’s ‘something’, but the primary goal of the visit wasn’t attained.
Mutineers might be a disappointment by comparison with what came before. After two decades of sustained excellence, it seems Mr Gray is content with a (barely) passing grade with this one. As a long time David Gray assessor, I would rate Mutineers as ‘Could do better’ (then I would tell his parents that ‘I think we all know he is capable of so much more’).
David Gray – A Career thus far
Two decades of excellence. Ten albums, eight of which should be owned by anyone who claims to love good music. Among the albums, some 8 five * songs by my reckoning. Two dozen plus very creditable four * tracks, and another 70-something three *, which is my personal rating for a worthwhile, non-filler track. Elsewhere there are countless B sides, live tracks and covers which are more than worthy.
That’s over 100 original songs that display lyrical proficiency and musical craftsmanship out of the reach of 99% of the mere mortals in the music business – many of them I might add boasting higher album sales for no understandable reason.
Repeat; Over 100 songs worth your time. Most artists haven’t created 100 songs! In fact most of my other favourites don’t get near that kind of output.
Outkast, Hoodoo Gurus, The Hives, De La Soul, Something for Kate, Massive Attack, join the queue.
And yet aside from six months in 2000 when Babylon captured the airwaves, David Gray has never been BIG. This despite almost universal acknowledgment from critics and people I know who actually care about music beyond sales and airplay.
All I know is that I have well over 5,000 songs that I COULD PLAY to a stranger. If I wanted to give myself the best chance of pleasantly surprising this random person, I could play any one of those hundred David Gray songs with confidence.
I just hope that if/when he tours Australia again he plays more of the old stuff and less of the Mutineers.