North American fans of British pop music probably first heard of Gemma Hayes sometime in 2002. If it wasn't a pretty song of hers on a bonus CD from one of those big UK music magazines that evoked a mildly interested "Who was that?" reaction from listeners over here, it was the news of her debut album being shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize that summer. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter from Ireland has been the recipient of some very high praise lately, from critics and artists alike, and this past April, thanks to Astralwerks Records, we on this side of the Atlantic were given the opportunity to see for ourselves just what the big deal is with this young lady, as Night on My Side was given an overdue Stateside release.
Hayes is a very interesting artist; she has a gorgeous voice, one that sounds strong, yet fragile, like a cross between Beth Orton and Shawn Colvin. But unlike many of her female peers, she doesn't ruin things by oversinging and showing how much range she has. She sounds completely unpretentious and honest, which is a very welcome change, especially when compared to the bombastic Michelle Branch types we're stuck hearing on the radio. Even more fascinating are the two sides to Hayes's songs on Night on My Side: she often echoes the quiet, introspective, bedroom-style, gentle folk music of Joni Mitchell, but also goes to the other end of the spectrum, cranking up the volume considerably, as she mines the catalogs of such shoegazer artists as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, adding layers of droning guitars.
That heads-or-tails duality is driven home on the US release of the album, which differs greatly from the original UK release. Only seven of this version's 12 tracks appear on the original ("What a Day", from the UK album, is included here as a bonus track), as the other five tracks were lifted from various EPs and singles. Not only that, but the songs have been shuffled around, and now the US album is divided into two "sides", labeled "Day" and "Night". Typically, "Day" contains all electric songs, while "Night" features the more acoustic, quieter fare. What that neat and tidy organization does is showcase Gemma Hayes at her finest, revealing a major talent. Unfortunately, what it also makes more obvious is that she can also sound disappointingly bland at times. It's up to the listener to figure out what side of Gemma Hayes they prefer more.
Without a doubt, the first six tracks that comprise the "Day" half are absolutely stupendous. The songs are smartly written, very catchy, radio friendly, and positively buoyant at times. The album opens with a trio of songs that deserve attention from mainstream rock fans; "Hanging Around" starts off as sounding like yet another pre-packaged alternative rock song, but Hayes throws in a melody so lovely that it's actually surprising to hear. "Back of My Hand" utilizes some tiny hints of guitar drones underneath Hayes's almost country-ish phrasing, while the wonderful single "Let a Good Thing Go" turns up the distortion considerably, reaching almost Lush-like heights of layered, noisy guitars. Hayes goes fully into dreampop mode on the next three songs. "Tear in My Side" has that typical, slow pace and insistently strummed guitars, not to mention plenty of repeated, mantralike lyrics ("Tear in my side / I feel it all"), but Hayes's fresh approach makes it work very well. Same goes for the splendid "Work to a Calm", which originally appeared on the UK EP of the same name, as well as the ethereal "Lucky One", with its swirling, roaring guitars that make the song all the more anguished. The first half of this album is so good, you just want it to go on forever, carrying you away.
Sadly, the "Night" section sputters, and rarely leaves the ground. Not that the songs are bad; in fact, they're rather nice (especially "Making Waves", "Ran for Miles", and "4:35 AM"), but they're the same old thing we always hear from soul-baring female folk singers, and don't really offer the listener anything special or memorable. The one song that comes closest is "My God", as good a song about someone's crisis of faith as you'll come across, in which Hayes sings, "I'll keep the car running outside / While you go and make up your mind / Are you staying here or running wild with me / You know I could still love you".
Produced and mixed by the ever-present Dave Fridmann, who seems to be everywhere these days, Night on My Side has that trademark Fridmann sheen that creates a warm, clean sound, without sounding too overdone (David Odlum also co-produced). Listening to it, one can't help but wish there were more electric songs. Hayes sounds like she's on the verge of something special when the volume is turned up louder, as her wonderful voice fits nicely amidst all the distortion (something that contemporary shoegazers like the Stratford 4 sorely lack). For now, though, we have a very likeable debut album, one that manages to top the original UK edition. On this one, Hayes gives us six really good songs and six ordinary ones, but the better songs are good enough to make this album a very worthwhile listen.