Release Date: 03.21.00
Record label: ATO Records
Genre(s): Movies, Film Scores, Musicals, Etc.
Ascending the Ladder
by: matt halverson
How does one describe David Gray? He's Irish. He defines the cliché "indie." And his fourth album, White Ladder, may be the most beautiful quintuple-platinum record you've never heard of.
With a mixture of subtle, pseudo-techno beats, piano and acoustic guitar, Gray strings together an unlikely marriage of genres to brew a cup of emotion that has already spent five weeks quenching the musical thirst of Europe atop the Irish Top 30.
Of course, it helps to have friends. With a hand from indie-friendly rock superstar Dave Matthews, Gray has made the all-important trip across the Atlantic. After his band toured alongside Gray in the States, Matthews, who calls Gray "beautiful in the purest and most honest way," signed him to his fledgling ATO Records in order to give the Welsh musician a foothold in America.
Originally released in Europe in November '98, White Ladder comes to Yankee listeners with an additional two tracks and a bonus enhanced CD feature that includes a 12-minute video of live concert footage.
Equal parts Freddy Jones Band, acoustic Dave Matthews and Milwaukee native Willy Porter, Gray's songwriting talent is evidence that not everyone is as wrapped up in bubblegum pop craze as America. With songs that range in subject matter from excess and cynicism ("My Oh My") to a sense that everything is going to be okay ("Silver Lining") Gray shows that love isn't the only emotion that can make a heartfelt song.
Gray's twangy voice would make him a natural at singing country songs of loss and regret. When wrapped around the "live-for-today" lyrics that color the majority of Ladder's songs, however, it grins with a bittersweet happiness that belies any comprehension of the end of the honeymoon. Though supported by everything from violin to piano, Gray's raspy vocals take a confident step forward and make a good case for ditching the musical accompaniment altogether. Such a claim, however, would falsely suggest a musical inferiority, and Gray's ghostly acoustic guitar makes its presence known through subtlety and timing.
It's nearly two minutes into the album's first song, "Please Forgive Me," before Gray's plucking turns an introspective piano-based ballad into a playful affirmation of love. As soon as it appears, it fades again and makes the listener wonder if it was ever there to begin with. At times, however, the drum machine is turned off, the piano is pushed aside, and Gray is left alone with his guitar.
In songs like "My Oh My," Gray's voice and guitar playfully jab at each other for prominence, and the result is a beautiful sparring contest. Never quite able to outdo one another, the counterparts balance the scale between his voice's somber pleadings and the guitar's hopeful swing.
It remains to be seen whether Matthew's attempt at bringing Gray a commercial breakthrough in the States will work. Regardless of what help he has received, however, Gray's music exhibits a wistful beauty that more than allows him to support himself.