A reunion of Basquiat's mythic band without Basquiat, which proves interesting enough to hold its own.
Until recently, the closest any one who wasn’t there in the early '80s ever got to seeing Gray was their brief cameo in the 1996 Julian Schnabel film Basquiat. Penned by Schnabel and Michael Holman, Basquiat featured a short scene of the infamous titular painter/actor/graffiti artist/musician performing a routine involving Burroughs-esque cutups of a fake call to a real suicide hotline. The band in the scene featured actual members Holman, Nicholas Thyme and Justin Thyme. The only one missing was Jean-Michel Basquiat himself, who died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose and whose absence looms over Shades Of…, Gray’s 30-year-late debut. Perhaps that’s why Gray have chosen to include bits of the original recording of the infamous suicide hotline call as short tracks parsed throughout the album. Unfortunately, these are the least interesting parts of the album, and they serve mainly as apologetic distractions from what is actually a quite interesting mix of music that needs no excuses for its existence.
Basquiat, the film, mostly deals with the painter’s friendship with Andy Warhol and does not depict in full the musical environment in which Gray came about. Much better in this regard is Downtown 81, whose soundtrack contains “Drum Mode”, which is not only the lone song Gray recorded with Basquiat, but also the only song the band ever cut in a studio before these most recent sessions. Cast with Basquiat himself as the lead at a time when he was homeless, Downtown 81 depicts a vibrant New York subculture whose arts scenes bled into one another, the narrative tracing a connection between music as disparate as DNA, Fab Five Freddy, Blondie, Tuxedomoon, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and Gray.
Shades Of… is likewise a diverse collection of intersecting musical styles. Though members of the band admit that the album is composed of entirely new recordings (except for the aforementioned “Drum Mode” and suicide hotline extracts), music scholar and Downtown 81 scribe Glenn O’Brien claims that the music is a mixture of old favorites from their live performances and new compositions, and accurately depicts the feel of what Gray circa ’81 was all about. With scarce surviving video or audio proof of their existence, we can only take O’Brien’s and others’ apocryphal proclamations at their word. However, even as a somewhat flawed and overly long outing, Shades Of… keeps Gray’s mythic status intact. The album proves that the band has at least been keeping up on the sounds that followed their brief tenure, whether or not they prefigure them.
In the spirit of post-punk, “Gray’s approach to music was having heard music, to approach instruments and sound systems the way one would pick up a strange machine and try to intuit its operation and function”, according to O’Brien. This seems particularly true of “Drum Mode”, as well as several other cuts on the album. “The Gauntlet of Wriggly’s” sounds like someone left a contact mic on and dragged it around one of the five boroughs, but there’s also an ambiance about it that’s oddly creepy, too. “Eight Hour Religion” is layered chanting and tribal drumming that could be mistaken for Einsturzende Neubaten if it was only slightly more Teutonic. “The Man Who” loosely ties together a spare beat and humming free-form analogue noise in a minimalist patchwork that reminds me a bit of Broadcast’s rougher, shorter instrumentals like “One Hour Empire” or anything off the Microtronics discs.
Elsewhere, the group works carefully with tight session drummers and exhibits themselves in instrumental acuity that affirms that Gray have been actually learning how to play those strange machines they picked up all those years ago. In a sense, there’s a kind of 30 year history here that tries to capture all that has gone on in the band’s absence. “Pillar of Salt” is a short pretty piece that’s produced with the attention and detailing of a Kieran Hebden. The manic drums and skronky noise of “Dan Asher (I Saw You Liking Everything)” meanwhile seems to anticipate/owe debt to latter day second wave Brooklyn no(ise) wave. “Washington DC 20013” is super lo-fi drum-and-bass, way lower-fi than even the original desktop sounds, while “Cut It Up” and “Doctor Dhoom” are acid jazz rap and millennium-era Automator hip-hop respectively.
We’re no closer to knowing the original Gray than we were before they dropped Shades Of…, but they’ve made newer audiences privy to a sound that works surprisingly well as both a comeback and a debut album. Who knows -- we might just hear from them again in the next 30 years.