White Ladder

David Gray

Ato Records, 2000

http://www.davidgray.com

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/30/2008

It’s hard to believe that David Gray hasn’t appeared on the Vault until now, almost a decade after this album, his breakthrough, was released. Although Gray was a presence on the folk-rock scene throughout the ‘90s, it wasn’t until 2000 with lead-single “Babylon” that his fourth album, 1999’s White Ladder, leapt to the top of the British single charts, with the album itself soon following (and in Ireland, Ladder remains the best selling album of all time.) Meanwhile, across the pond, Dave Matthews made the album the first release off of ATO Records and, unsurprisingly, chart-topping ensued.

Because it’s really too hard not to love this gem of an album. Gray’s vocals are deep, dipping into a somehow soothing growl, and his lyrics, which spin yarns of young love and slivers of hope rising out of lonely nights, are tender and reflectively honest.  Sonically, too, this disc is well-textured but always measured:  touches of electronics drive the beat of tracks like “We’re Not Right” and opener “Please Forgive Me,” not to mention the slight shivers that peek through in “Babylon” -- still, it’s never overbearing, and it just serves to add a nice weight to the otherwise delicate strums of acoustic guitar and muted drum backbeats.

Though it (inexplicably) flopped as a leadoff single, “Please Forgive Me” is probably the most resonant track here. I’d spent years shrugging off this album after hearing it played to death on my mother’s stereo when it was first released, but after “Please Forgive Me” made its way into Scrubs, nbtc__dv_250 I found myself hooked (so much for my rebellion). Propelled by a catchy drumbeat and low flickers of piano, this manages to rise above the traditional ballad with its haunting sense of urgency. “I got half a mind to scream out loud / I got half a mind to die / So I won’t ever have to lose you, girl / Won’t ever have to say goodbye,” Gray croons, tapping into the lovelorn, searching heart at the center of us all

 “Babylon” most likely needs no mention, save that its lyrics paint a wonderfully evocative picture of a London weekend looking for -- something, a love to fill the loneliness of moving through the streets as “all the lights are changing green to red” and the “sky is fading red to blue / I’m kicking through the autumn leaves / And wondering where it is you might be going to.” 

Gray follows his omnipresent single with a string of hits: “My Oh My” launches out with the visceral lines, “Seems these days I don't feel anything / Less it cuts me right down to the bone / What on earth is going on in my heart?” and builds on them with acoustic guitar and a layer of high, melodic synths shining in the background, turning this into a boundless appeal for love to keep the heart warmed. Next, “We’re Not Right” has an appropriately swaggering beat, with its refrain “Can’t tell the bottle from the mountaintop” and Gray’s lilting, almost mournful vocals. Meanwhile, “Nightblindness” is sparse and hollow, outfitted with only stilted strums of acoustic guitar and Gray’s weighted-down voice, with the fourth mention of plummeting or cold stones in almost as many tracks lending another layer of heaviness.

The overlong “Silver Lining” is probably the biggest stumble here (though the final track, a retelling of “Babylon” called “Babylon II” is nice, but not all that vital); “Lining,” likewise, isn’t particularly offensive, it’s just not interesting either even despite the promise of its wide-eyed lyrics at the start, which isn’t helped by a section of meandering instrumentation near its end. Still, it’s buoyed by the rain-soaked, punchy beats of the title-track and the sweet, piano-based single “This Year’s Love,” on which Gray’s mellowed vocals truly shines.

Threads of David Gray’s sound still wind their way through the latest crop of singer-songwriters: I recently reviewed Jay Nash, who has been touted as America’s answer to Gray, while moments of this disc sound a little reminiscent of Coldplay. He is poised to release another album soon, following a return to form with 2005’s Life In Slow Motion after the slightly slammed follow-up to White Ladder, A New Day At Midnight. Still, even if he never put another note to paper, Gray already has a shining legacy in this album: hopeful, melodic, and memorable, this is one of those times where the charts were entirely right.

Rating: A-

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© 2008 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Ato Records, and is used for informational purposes only.