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White Ladder

music reviewmusic reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: White Ladder

Artist: David Gray
Genre: Rock/Pop
Release Date: 1999

Review by LarryG
3 stars out of 4

British singer/songwriter David Gray really seems like a decent guy. His sincerity and lack of pretension are very appealing. Gray's vocals aren't flashy, just strong, honest and emotionally expressive. Gray's hit Babylon wasn't trendy or fashionable, it slowly moved up the charts, gradually winning people over with its charming modesty. White Ladder doesn't always reach Babylon's uplifting, stark perfection but it always bares the mark of a thoughtful, genuine and imaginative artist.

White Ladder was clearly a low budget recording. The rhythm comes from a fairly cheap sounding drum machine. Gray and Craig McClune played all the instruments. Still, White Ladder has a rich sound. Babylon exemplifies Gray's charms. Babylon is melodic and simple with a little edge. Gray repeats a good, slight acoustic guitar phrase and avoids seeming like another boring, wimpy folky with a steady but not overpowering drum machine and slightly trippy synths. The music matches the unassumingly charming lyrics. Gray admits his mistakes to his love: "I've been a fool to open up my heart to all that jealousy, that bitterness, that ridicule." Rising guitar and piano create an optimistic setting as he asks her on the chorus to "let go your heart, let go your head and feel it now." Gray's sincerity and light musical touch save Please Forgive Me. Gray is slightly sappy, apologizing if love makes him act strange when he looks at his girl, but Please Forgive Me is irresistably buoyant, starting with a fast, shuffling beat and adding bubbling keyboards then a good, simple guitar riff.

Most of White Ladder isn't as joyful as the first two songs. It's largely about trying to stay optimistic in sad, disappointing situations. Gray is very human, regularly conflicted between looking on the bright side, drowning his sorrow in alcohol and giving things another try, even if that could mean more disappointment. No matter what mood he's in, Gray is likable even when painfully wondering if his heart has "turned as cold as stone" and spitting out that he "used to be so definite" on My Oh My or realizing, on We're Not Right, that drinking isn't helping his sadness. Those songs are mostly Gray's voice and his acoustic. Nightblindness' tale of sad desperation has an appropriately stark mood. Gray, singing over very minimal keyboards, guitar and drum, despairs, "what we gonna do when the money runs out." Silver Lining is another sad one but Gray typically tries to find hope even as he laments a world that's dragged him down after we were "so alive with wild hope." Gray's voice is powerful and filled with feeling. His pain sounds very real. The title track has the CD's general undercurrent of sadness but it's about trying not to wallow. The drums and synths are more upbeat than usual. Gray bemusedly reflects, "there's no rhyme or reason to life, this sweet life" Gray's vulnerability is a big part of his appeal. Backed only by a piano, Gray is touchingly exposed on This Year's Love. After repeated romantic failures, Gray is willing to pin his hopes on a new romance and "forget how my heart gets torn when that hurt gets thrown." Gray's version of Soft Cell's Say Hello, Wave Goodbye isn't as dramatic as the original but even without Marc Almond's flamboyant poignance, Gray still conveys sadness as he celebrates the end of a screwed up romance. As the song fades, Gray pays tribute to an idol who's also a romantic poet, slipping in a little of Van Morrison's Into The Mystic and Madam George. In my opinion, Sail Away is the only song on White Ladder that's less than captivating. While it has the record's charming simplicity, it's the most standard folk song with cliched lyrics(sail away with me, what will be, will be) and a draggy, uninspired arrangement.

Gray records for Dave Matthews' ATO records. Matthews and Gray both seem like decent, regular guys. Matthews must admire Gray's ability to make simple, interesting music and directly convey emotions. On White Ladder, the music is compelling, without a lot of show. Gray is brave, keeping the music minimal, adding a little interesting texture, but mostly letting his voice and good songs stand on their own.



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