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Gemma Ray

Island Fire

Format: CD   Release Date: 04/24/2012
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The fact that Island Fire has bonus tracks from a previous single that appeared on the digital version of her fourth album, and that Gemma Ray not only covers two Sparks songs, but fully collaborates with the Mael brothers on one of them, almost threatens to overshadow everything else. But Ray hasn't built up her already considerable reputation by simply relying on others -- Island Fire wends its way through a variety of approaches, all of which have her own stamp on them first and foremost. That she plays with an early, Spector-style tearjerker in musical form is one thing; that the title and message of the song is "Put Your Brain in Gear," another. It also ends up making the more straightforward romantic longings in "Rescue Me" a little unsettled in context, though on its own, it's a lovely bit of Theremin-tinged pop based in the same time and space. But eras happily collide throughout the album in a way that suggests St. Etienne more than anyone else, though if Ray's dance inclinations are less toward house and techno, the pulsing drum machine beats underscoring the melodrama of "Runaway" add their own core kick. Then there's the swaying roll of "They All Wanted a Slice," somewhere between sunshine pop, Claudine Longet, and something just downright spooky. Whether it's the sprightly, spare elegance of "Alight! Alive!" at the opening, or the bold brass parts and bells on "Trou de Loup," there's a series of near-cinematic experiences throughout. It makes moments like the folky piano/acoustic guitar-led "Fire House" not only contrast but showcase, while the brushed drums and low, hissing rumbles on "I Can See You" tug the song toward a more 2000s bedroom pop sensibility, even as more brass, slower and more strangely unsettled, returns in the second verse. As for the Sparks' songs, Ray turns them into slower, simultaneously sprightly and spooked-out variants on the originals, a lovely way to honor the wickedly funny emotional content of the source band. ~ Ned Raggett, Rovi

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