Gemma Ray practices a kind of baroque, cabaret-style of pop that involves ornate orchestration, tongue-twisting lyrical delivery and a sly, “knowing” demeanor that is either ironically winning or grating as hell, depending on your point of view. Myself, I’ll go with “grating as hell”. The little-girl cutesiness that crops up from time to time doesn’t help matters.
Ray’s previous album, 2010’s It’s a Shame About Gemma Ray, offered a more straightforward foray into the world of pop and—dare I say it?—blues-rock, courtesy of a stripped-down sound that was free of baroqueness and gimmickry. Listeners hoping for more exploration of that sort are apt to be disappointed, however, as this is the logical follow-up to her 2009 offering, Lights Out Zoltar!. Ray is aiming to be the next Kate Bush, or possibly Regina Spektor, or possibly the unholy love-child of them both, with a few of PJ Harvey’s more questionable tendencies thrown in. It all comes out as something of a mess.
The bad news doesn’t hit right away. Album opener “Alight! Alive!” showcases Ray’s verbal dexterity and nimble pipes, and if the music is scattered—everything from guitars to violins to bells—well, it suits the song somehow. Other songs follow in its wake, however, and soon enough the listener is overwhelmed with the sheer amount of sonic stuff on this album.
Some of this could be forgiven as an overabundance of ideas and enthusiasm, and for some songs, such as the five-minute mini-epic “Make it Happen”, this is perhaps true. But missteps are many, such as “Eaten By the Monster of Love”, a song that’s about as funny as its title suggests, although it tries to be much more so. Then there are the lush, overdone arrangements of “Put Your Brain in Gear”, “Rescue Me”, and “Trou de Loup”, which seem to strive melodramatically for something more than is actually there.
The one-line joke of “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall” stands out as especially dire. With a grueling, piano-based rhythm and lyrics that consist of little more than the repetition of the title and its punch-line answer (“Practice, man, practice”), this nugget will consume four minutes of your life if you let it. Is Ray trying to make a joke we’ve all heard a hundred times before? Is her guttural growl supposed to be serious? Is this some kind of protest at the music industry, or an inside joke for her admirers? Beats me. It’s dull, whatever it is.
On the other side of things, there are some highlights. “Flood and a Fire” is a relatively simple song that sticks in the ear in all the right ways, while “Fire House” and “I Can See You” both benefit from atmospheric arrangements that serve the songs rather than serve to squash them.
Ultimately, though, this is an overwrought mess of an album, with songs that try way too hard to do far too much. No doubt Ray has her fans out there who will be thrilled to see her return to this showtune style of campy pop pastiche. For my part, though, I would have liked to see her plowing the fruitful furrow she explored so successfully in her last album.