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Lights Out Zoltar!

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Album Review

On her second album, British singer/songwriter Gemma Ray lights out again on the adventurous trajectory she established with her 2008 debut. The word used repeatedly to describe Ray's cinematic retro sound is "noirish," and while that accurately describes the spacious, tremolo-heavy atmosphere of many of the songs here, it misses the warmth, quirky wit, and low-gloss sparkle of Ray's writing. She references pre-Fab Four rock for the melody and melodrama, ‘60s girl groups for the harmonies, spaghetti western soundtracks for the sense of space, and indie-pop for the cheek.

Recorded (with co-producer Michael J. Sheehy) in a home-studio setting, the tracks benefit from thoughtful production and, in some cases, a concert-hall largeness of scope that belies the modest production. The familiar rubs shoulders with the off-kilter, as on the lush space opera "Fist of a Flower," which layers multiple Gemmas over a languorous minor-key shuffle, with an insistent Beach Boys harmony hook that sounds both comfortingly recognizable and spookily out of context. On "(You Got Me in a) Death Roll," Ray toughens up and deepens her voice for a dirgey blues number with weird, stentorian, Greek-chorus backing vocals that turn a simple blues into a theatrical show-stopper. A similar sense of drama informs the rest of the songs here, and while the noir thing can be a lot to digest over the course of 12 songs, the gentle, unadorned album-closer, "So Do I," demonstrates that Ray can do "subtle," too.


Born: Basildon, Essex, England

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

British pop music has plenty of retro-soul and R&B acts, but the recordings of singer/songwriter Gemma Ray reveal a more complex and restless artistic nature than most. Reaching back to pre-Beatles rock for inspiration -- but tossing in a jumble of influences including the torch songs of Billie Holiday, film scores, flamenco, and more -- Ray has sculpted a sound that is familiar and warm, but also appealingly off-kilter and full of noir-ish touches. The Essex native released her first album, The...
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Lights Out Zoltar!, Gemma Ray
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