Music

David Gray: Shine: The Best of the Early Years

Witness the portrait of a now famous songwriter when he was on the cusp of being famous, guided only by a raw gift for melody and a fire in his belly.


David Gray

Shine: The Best of the Early Years

Label: Astralwerks
US Release Date: 2007-04-03
UK Release Date: 2007-03-26
Amazon
iTunes

Expending blood, sweat, and financial resources under the unwanted shade of anonymity, slipping demos to anyone who will listen, playing countless shows where venue staff and the family and friends placed on the guest list far outnumber anyone else in attendance; these plagues are often assigned by the Fates to musicians who find themselves struggling for that elusive first breakthrough. Three albums into the career of David Gray, conditions were similar and the British singer-songwriter found himself on the receiving end of underwhelming sales and an even bleaker relationship with record labels.

Fourth album White Ladder was certainly a personal affair as Gray paid for and recorded the album on his own, allowing the noise of the streets outside his window to mix with somber songs of love and failure. Surprisingly, the album began to pick up steam and make headway in both Ireland and England, precipitating the entrance of Dave Matthews in the role of unlikely savior. Matthews released the album in the United States on his ATO Records label and White Ladder expanded its commercial success on the strength of tracks like "Please Forgive Me", "This Year's Love", and radio darling "Babylon". Skillfully blending an authentic folk rock approach with cool, detached electronic and ambient sounds, the record showcased Gray's unique style, setting him apart from those with whom he shared the adult alternative airwaves. Subsequent releases A New Day at Midnight and Life in Slow Motion have furthered Gray's reputation as an artist who puts a high premium on songcraft as well as one who blends well the organic textures of his influences (Dylan and Van Morrison are often referenced as having made a significant impression on Gray) and the radiance possible in the shimmer of modern pop.

Often when a performer who has toiled through relative obscurity is greeted with unanticipated success, a strange phenomenon occurs. The artist, who may have formerly wondered if they even had a fan base, now has one seemingly divided into two camps: a small, fiercely devoted segment who have felt the artist's struggles as their own and a broader, more diverse cross section of the record buying public who may be unaware that the artist's breakthrough is no case of overnight success, having little or no exposure to their back catalog. For those wanting to fill the gaps in their contact with a newly treasured artist or for longtime fans looking to revisit the simpler times, an exploration of past work can enrich the experience. David Gray fans have the option of mining the wealth of his past albums (which in this instance provide a rewarding opportunity) or turning to Shine: The Best of the Early Years, a new summation of his earliest offerings.

The listener approaching the material on a retrospective like Shine would do well to ask several questions. First, is the record a proper representative sample of Gray's first works? The collection's fifteen tracks are divided evenly from among those early albums whose potential went so overlooked: 1993's A Century Ends, 1994's Flesh and 1996's Sell, Sell, Sell. The sheer fairness used in proportioning the track listing gives listeners access to a reasonably clear picture of what Gray's early work was truly about.

Next, how does this glimpse into Gray's older material compare with later works that have established and sustained his fame? Has his musical output been steady and even in its direction and quality, or does it prove dim when held up to the bright lights of his sure successes? In Gray's case, the results are mostly positive, revealing some slight differences between initial and more recent recordings but more often than not proving the consistency of his skill in a career where response to that skill has not been as consistent as it should.

Several moments on the album reveal a youthful exuberance which expressed itself on tracks that wind up sounding far aggressive and insistent than anything on Gray's later efforts. While no one will ever confuse David Gray with David Bowie, songs like "Faster, Sooner, Now" and "Sell, Sell, Sell" receive the full band treatment and exhibit a more rock and roll side of Gray that sees little sunlight on later projects. At times, this part of Gray's musical personality is articulated a bit awkwardly but is still fun to hear. Occasionally, Gray trips over his own vocal intensity on more midtempo songs like "The Light" but the ambition he displays is a precursor to more focused efforts.

Exquisite offerings such as "Hold on to Nothing", "Coming Down", and the title cut are evidence that Gray has long had a talent for writing memorably passionate songs and that such intimately constructed settings are the perfect backdrop for his uniquely expressive voice, able to convey both quiet desperation and enduring joy. Furthermore, even the most casual Gray fan needs to have a copy of the tracks "Late Night Radio", "Flesh", and "Debauchery" in their possession; any of these cuts could have found a place among his most successful releases to date.

Time has been good to Gray and though his newer work is tempered with a maturity not fully realized here, Shine: The Best of the Early Years is worth experiencing, if for no other reason, than to witness the portrait it paints of a now famous songwriter through times when he was on the cusp of being famous without knowing it, guided only by a raw gift for melody and a fire in his belly.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.