With her sultry, soulful vocals, dramatic, expansive arrangementsand smouldering looks, it’s something of a surprise that Gemma Rayhasn’t already broken through in a marketplace that’s on the wholebeen very kind to home-grown female performers over the past decade or so. But while Amy, Duffy, Adele and Jessie have all madeit big, this very untypical Essex girl is still plugging away inrelative obscurity despite appearing to have many of the attributesfor mainstream success.
Island Fire is Ray’s fourth album and sees her returning to thetried and tested formula of her first two records following thestripped down diversion of It’s A Shame About Gemma Ray, herpun-tastic 2010 collection of covers. The songs here first emergedwhen Gemma was stranded in Australia as a result of the air travelchaos caused by the infamous Icelandic volcano ash cloud, encouragingher to put her unexpected free time to good use (as well as inspiringthe album’s title) before she returned to Sydney last year to finishthe record.
With different styles ranging from anguished torch song (Flood AndA Fire) to lavish orchestral pop (Bring Ring Ring Yeah) and broodingguitar atmospherics (Make It Happen), Island Fire is something of arestless affair, with its protagonist seemingly a little unsure onwhether she wants to be a Phil Spector ’60s girl group singer orlatter day Billie Holliday. In her moodier moments, such asthe aforementioned Make It Happen, she inhabits similar territory tothe critically lauded Anna Calvi, but in contrast, the likes ofRescue Me are more akin to the slightly twee melodramatics of retrorevivalists Camera Obscura.
Most bizarre of all is an unlikely collaboration with Ron andRussell Mael on two Sparks covers that round off the album as‘bonus tracks’. How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall substitutes some of theoriginal’s high camp for a more sinister dynamic, while Eaten By TheMonster Of Love is theatrical, ridiculous but rather good fun. Bothhowever sound somewhat incongruous alongside Gemma’s more restrainedself-penned material and add to Island Fire’s slightly unevenfeel.
That Ray has talent is not in doubt – she blends disparategenres very adroitly and is bold and ambitious. But there’s somethingmissing on Island Fire that prevents the album from delivering to thesum of its parts, something that’s maybe also the reason why she isn’tmaking that leap forward into the big time, and that’s the songsthemselves. Put bluntly, they aren’t quite strong enough to match thescale of her musical vision, lacking the irresistible melodies oreffortless swagger to command the listener’s attention like, say,Amy Winehouse did before her demons got the better of her, andsomehow bereft of their own unique personality. Ray soundsrather like a lot of other people, but nothing really makes her standout, something akin to the girl next door with the big voice factorthat helped Adele conquer the world.
Of course, not every artist can be expected to shift units by themillion, and that’s probably not what Ray gets out of bed for in themorning in any case, but nevertheless Island Fire is unlikely to causea conflagration beyond those already in the know, despite having plentyto offer those willing to listen.