Gemma Hayes’ debut album arrives with most of the music-buying public not knowing who she is. In a way, this is to her advantage, as Night on my Side is a record which will disappoint her small but dedicated fan base.
Signed to the mighty Source Records in early 2001, waif-like Irish songstress Hayes released her first EP, 4.35 AM, in the summer of the same year. It revealed Hayes as an incredible talent, with the four songs on the EP being gloriously fragile, sensuous guitar-plucked melodies, the perfect soundtrack to a summer night pushing all the way through to morning.
It was intelligent and heartbreakingly delicate folk music, and everyone who heard it could not resist. A follow-up EP, Work to a Calm, came out near the end of the year, and once again showcased Hayes’ immense song-writing ability. However, crucially, the lead tracks had a harder, rockier edge, with Hayes saying that this was the sound she had adopted for the forthcoming album.
Working with well-respected producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse), Hayes has indeed made gone for a much more aggressive sound. People unaccustomed with Hayes’ previous EPs will come to this fresh and hopefully will appreciate the great musical skill that is on show here. However, for the rest of us, listening to ‘Night on my Side’ is like finding out that your small, scared puppy has become a growling dog.
Fridmann’s influence has brought out a belligerent quality in her songs, and while the passion and fervour – gentle before – is still there, it is expressed forcefully and with anger. Hayes maintains that her songs are not so dependent on lyrics but create pictures through chord progressions or the way notes slide off each other, however her inattentiveness to the lyrical side of the song is often very damaging. Too many songs, with ‘Tear in my Side’ being a prime example, become a repetition of the same short phrase, mantra-like, with the vocal becoming progressively frenzied while the band around her build to a sound that is far too close to cacophony. What’s lost is that rare intimacy of the first two EPs.
Hayes says of the opening track Day One that “it’s about needing to get from A to B, and you change everything about yourself to get there. And when you do get to B it’s like ‘Fuck, I was really a nice person back there and I’m crap now’.” While Hayes has hardly become ‘crap’, the album’s problem is that from getting from A to B, Gemma has lost what made her so special in the first place. She says she writes at night because only then can she capture that “lazy calm”, yet that is exactly what has been sacrificed due to the rough and ready way that Fridmann has produced the album, attempting to make each song as rocky as it can be.
This is still a fine album boasting great songs, yet they are trapped inside something too hard and stifling to let them breathe properly. These are no longer songs we need to carefully fold in our arms, afraid they might break in their fragility, but ones sung on dawn hilltops, screaming out in anger and confusion. While Night on my Side is not the album in which Gemma Hayes fulfils her potential, flashes of her brilliance are still visible throughout, especially on the aching, transcendent I Wanna Stay. Still only 23, though, we just know the best is yet to come from Gemma Hayes.