Archives: Review - White Ladder

The first few years of this decade saw the resurgence of a musical counter-culture, during which the world appeared to have been briefly taken by storm. This allergic reaction to electronic, dance and grunge music was the 'Unplugged' bandwagon - that organic cereal of the music world which somehow represented all that is good, rootsy and wholesome.

And so, the floodgates opened up for hoards of singer / songwriters bearing their souls with nothing more than six strings and their versions of the truth.

But having suffered appallingly soulless acoustic cover versions from too many second rate Bob Dylans, we've learnt that folk or 'unplugged' music can, at times, be like health food - just because it doesn't have all the colouring and tastes like dogshit doesn't mean it's always good for you. 

Fortunately, not all of these acts can be tarred with the same brush, and one such troubadour is David Gray who's fourth album, White Ladder, displays that there's more to songwriting than battered old guitars, khaftans and recycled ideas from the 60's. 

Since playing his first gigs in Ireland almost five years ago, the Welshman's shows have resulted in him becoming an adopted native, much in the same way ex-Waterboy, Mike Scott settled here, but luckily minus the raggle-taggle rubbish. This might explain Gray's decision to release this nine song collection exclusively in Ireland on his own iht label while slightly changing his musical direction by use of less standard folky instruments. 

Those only familiar with the heavily acoustic material from his debut, A Century Ends, and it's follow up, Flesh, would be forgiven for stopping the opening track, Please Forgive Me, and checking if they've put the The X-Files soundtrack on by mistake. Programmed beats shuffle behind electronic piano and bass sounds as a throaty voice cuts through with a simple but strong melody before sparse acoustic guitar notes decorate a very slick background. 

Babylon and We're Not Right get the same digital treatment, but to a lesser degree, resulting in laid back tunes which could be easily performed without the trimmings in a live situation.

Generally, melodies on this album fall somewhere between Hothouse Flowers' harmonised choruses and John Martyn's soulful mumblings. For this style of music it sounds like a winning formula, but falls flat on it's face with songs like My Oh My and Sail Away, where despite textbook songwriting, the arrangements seem too lack-lustre and formulaic to warrant anyones full attention.

The album's title track compensates for these shortcomings with echoes of Gray's last LP, Sell, Sell, Sell, as intermittent jabs of electric guitar form a clever backdrop for a distinctive shrill, quivering voice.

While swapping guitar for piano on This Year's Love, he delivers a bitter-sweet ballad which wouldn't seem out of place on either Nick Cave's Boatman's Call or Tom Waits' Closing Time albums. That considered, any references to murder, alcohol and the Bible are pretty thin on the ground, so Messrs Waits' and Cave's claim on this territory is not under threat here. 

This and other tracks from White Ladder feature on the soundtrack of a film of the same name, due for release Valentines Day 1999. So, can we expect another 'Love is All Around' from 'Four Weddings...' type hit? I doubt it very much, since it sounds nothing like a backdrop to a TV advert or an Elton John 'bid to get a knighthood' type ditty. 

If the closing track sounds vaguely familiar, it's because (yes, you guessed right!) it's an acoustic cover version. Soft Cell's Say Hello Wave Goodbye, one of David Gray's live favourites, gets the full soulful treatment here. Despite being far too long and running the risk of painting a picture of a male Tracey Chapman (God forbid!), Gray's passionate delivery makes it one of the album's standout tracks.

Recently we've seen what were regarded as traditional singer / songwriters dip their toes into the pool of electronic music and manage to swim with ease. Everything But The Girl, who landed on the music scene a decade ago with a conventional jazz-tinged guitar sound, changed direction years later with the club hit Missing. David Gray too has opted to fiddle about with samplers and drum machines and has come up with some new material, which shows that just because it's plugged, doesn't mean it's all bad. So relax purists! All is not lost.

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