Gemma Ray – Island Fire (Shock)

Her name sounds a lot like Gamma Ray, and this British songwriter’s ‘pop-noir’ surf-space sound has a future-60s vibe where high frequency electromagnetic radiation might feel right at home. Island Fire, her fourth album, was mostly recorded at Alberts Studio inSydney after Ray’s travel plans were disrupted by the Icelandic volcanic eruption and she found herself trapped in theAntipodes.Australia clearly agreed with the singer, who has penned fourteen mysterious, moody and more-ish songs.

First track Alight! Alive! is a joyful, twinkling number reminiscent of our own Bachelorette. Put Your Brain in Gear is a slower number with the sugary backing vocals and sweet chorus that have drawn comparisons to Spector-era girl bands. Ray has criticized Mick Jagger for not singing with an English accent, a crime she cannot be accused of committing on this track. Her chavy vocals at times bring Lily Allen and Kate Nash to mind, but the sophistication of her songwriting overcomes this brief tonal similarity for Ray exists on a different musical plane altogether.

On first single Runaway Ray sings with the innocent drama of Nancy Sinatra. Though the music of this song is lush and beautiful, the knowing lyrics remove rather than immerse the listener in the scene, doing the song a disservice. “I didn’t even put my makeup on before I made that emergency call… none at all,” quips Ray, before stating that “they thought that it was murder, poison, some Victorian design. But then I saw your fingers wrapped around the childproof press.” It’s all a bit ‘wink, wink’, and it could have been something more.

Ray more than makes up for this brief lyrical transgression with the intimacy of songs such as Flood And A Fire and Rescue Me (which is more than a little Lynchian), the drama of Make It Happen and the quirkiness of They All Wanted A Slice and Bring Ring Ring Yeah, which comes complete with bells and finger snaps.

When she plays live, Ray either appears solo with effects pedals or with a band behind her. Either way, her signature sound-enhancing device is a carving knife which she glides over her guitar strings. In A Vanity Fair interview Ray says “it’s responsive to the tiniest tweak, and it’s never the same twice. Sometimes you get a resonating squeal, and sometimes you hear a low cello drone. I quite like the spontaneity of it.” It’s this attention to detail, and attention to drama, that makes Ray something special.
Kathryn van Beek

Click here to listen to Runaway from Island Fire: