The best part of writing "Nothing Not New" is hearing an artist that, under nearly any other circumstance, would probably escape my attention. Back in the day, when I was more attuned to new music, I probably would've eventually discovered an artist like Gemma Ray. Last couple of years? Not likely.
I don't know how the tiny record label Bronzerat (a British label whose biggest artist is a Jon Spencer side project called Heavy Trash) thought to send Ray's record to a Phoenix-based alt-weekly, but I'm glad they did.
On first blush, Gemma Ray struck me as a Holly Golightly-type -- not only because they're both British, but because they both are adept at taking other people's songs, reducing them to their essence, and re-interpreting them as stripped-to-the-bone garage blues.
That's oversimplifying Ray's sound, which certainly is stark but is neither all that garage-y nor bluesy, but fans of both genres would probably find Ray's music appealing. Among the haunting sadness in her voice, there's has a flair for theatricality and drama.
And Ray, who performs most of these songs with nothing more than a guitar, is a better singer and a more inventive guitarist than Golightly, at least in the conventional sense of musicality. Golightly is more a punk rocker at heart; Ray is more a chanteuse -- and a real talented one at that, with nearly impeccable taste in music.
On the 16-song It's a Shame About Gemma Ray, she covers tunes by Mudhoney, Lee Hazlewood, Buddy Holly, Sonic Youth, Gershwin, Gun Club, the pre-Flaming Stars band Gallon Drunk, The Obits, and several others. Despite her pretty voice, she conveys tension and desperation in her vocals and her arrangements. And her guitar playing, while not aggressive, is menacing.
"Everyday" by Buddy Holly becomes a minor-key lament, "Touch Me I'm Sick" sounds actually more dangerous without Mudhoney's grunge-y wall of guitars, the standard "Hey Big Spender" becomes twisted and frail, and as sung by Gemma Ray, "Ghost on the Highway," stripped of the Gun Club's swamp-punk racket, shows what a great songwriter Jeffrey Lee Pierce was.
Splitting the "boys" half and the "girls" half of the CD is "Rosemary's Baby vs. Drunken Butterfly," in which she fuses the theme to the Roman Polanski horror film with the Sonic Youth song. It sounds high-concept, but it works.
I sure do like Gemma Ray's back-to-basics approach and the juxtaposition of her pretty voice and raw sound. I look forward to more from Ray, and here's hoping she tours the United States and finds a way to Phoenix.
Best song: Lee Hazlewood is one of my all-time favorite artists, so I'll choose Track 2, "I'd Rather Be Your Enemy."
Deja Vu: The Shangri-Las' "He Cried," minus the Shadow Morton-styled melodramatics
I'd rather listen to: The Flaming Stars' Ginmill Perfume
"Nothing Not New" is a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 41-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.
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