Monday, 12 November 2007

Top 100 Albums - #58: White Ladder (1999)

At number 58 is David Gray's White Ladder, the album that made him an international success and his most critically acclaimed effort to date. After graduating from the University of Liverpool, Sale-born Gray began his career as a folk rocker. In the early days of obscurity, he relied on his fanbase in the Republic of Ireland, which he had earned thanks to the patronage of comic playwright Pat Ingoldsby. In 1993 Gray signed to EMI and released his debut, A Century Ends. Both this and its successors, Flesh (1994) and Sell, Sell, Sell (1996), were folk-rock albums which received a lukewarm reception from the critics and sold relatively poorly. Following this poor showing, Gray was dropped from EMI. Over the next two years he signed to Iht Records before going in hiatus.

This much-hyped album starts off with the piano-laden 'Please Forgive Me'. Once you overlook the overactive drum section and the off-putting fake strings, this actually becomes a very pleasant song. The vocals and the speed of the song suit Gray's raspy voice to the letters. The minimal feel to the piece brings out the personality of his delivery where so many others have simply rippled into the background. As the piece wears on - and it is a little too long - the acoustic guitar which defined his early work comes into the mix at just the right juncture and warms the cockles of your heart.

Having set you up, 'Babylon' manages and then some to carry the momentum of the record. If 'Please Forgive Me' was designed to make you curl up in a comfy chair, then this will bring a smile to your face as you sink deeper into a satisfied state of semi-consciousness. This is more up-tempo, it must be said, but it achieves the perfect compromise of being a showcase for Gray's passion without being shouty. It takes the laid-back folk of someone like Eddi Reader, overlays some keyboards and drum machines and creates a pop masterpiece.

With the tone of the album so firmly established, Gray changes direction with 'My Oh My'. This is reliant on his guitar and double-tracked vocals, which serve only to make it more middle-on-the-road. There is a good reason why Gray didn't sell many records before this own - when he's not doing piano-heavy stuff that he's difficult to discern from the next singer-songwriter. This track is like what Peace At Last (1996) was in the career of The Blue Nile - having established a brilliant sound on the first two installments, they changed course and lose many listeners on the way.

The tedium continues with 'We're Not Right'. The guitar is there again, only this time it's backed by some incredibly irritating sound effects. The horrible-sounding backing track provides rhythm but little else. It's not just the subject of the song that isn't right, it's the song as a whole - it feels so fake, so superficial, so shallow.

On these criteria, 'Nightblindness' should also fall by the wayside. But it doesn't, because although this is guitar-led, it's stripped back, so that Gray is singing bare. With no fancy effects to rely on, at least at first, he's forced to focus. This track is very similar to 'The Other Side' (the closer to the follow-up, A New Day At Midnight (2002)) - it's introspective, it builds naturally and doesn't try to overimpose itself on the listener. It works, simple as.

Both 'Silver Lining' and the title track are exercises in studio tedium, I'm afraid. The former is simply a drum machine track overdubbed with an annoying two-note riff on electric guitar and some substandard acoustic work. Gray's voice is completely uncompelling, and because of this the entire piece falls flat for the reasons I have hinted at before. With 'White Ladder' itself, its shortcomings are a combination of overproduction (especially at the start) and the fact that it demonstrates the limits of Gray's voice. Just because he can hit the higher registers doesn't make him any less annoying when he does it.

If you have been determined enough to get this far, well done. We are now rewarded with the two best pieces on the album, in direct succession. 'This Year's Love' is an incredibly emotive piece, and like all the best songs of its type, it's simple in both its message and its chord progression. Gray is at his most clear and open in the entire album, delivering perfect lines while the bittersweet chords tumble out of the grand piano. Everything comes in at just the right moment - from the individual vocals to the synthesised strings, nothing is rushed or allowed to overstay its welcome. It's brilliant. 'Sail Away' matches this brilliant track by bringing in some percussion and, unlike on 'Please Forgive Me', keeping it under control. The acoustic returns, welcomed back and restored to its rightful place, providing the understated chords while Gray echoes over the mix. Listening to this sounds like you are in a concert hall and you are the only spectator - it's so distant-sounding but it doesn't disappear into some kind of solemn mess.

With his credentials signed and sealed with these two masterstrokes, it is perhaps fitting that Gray finishes things off with a cover. His rendition of Marc Almond's 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' is a monolithic 8:58 long, but it has a couple of big advantages over the original. One is that Gray is a much better sing, provided a richer sound to lyrics which Almond's voice delivered so tinnily. The other is that the acoustic and bright production remove this song from its context - 1980s pop - and breathe new life into it without passing it off as a hollow pop exercise.

As we have seen, not all of the hype White Ladder received should have been so readily granted it. On many occassions Gray gets it spot on, but, frustratingly, there are too many moments where cracks appear into the folky techno plaster. It should be a vital part of anyone's collection, largely because of the optimism which radiates from it, something that modern pop so often reduces to shameless pap in the shape of Sandi Thom. Like all good albums, White Ladder will reveal more of itself the more times you listen to it. But as with A New Day At Midnight, its success or failure hinges on whether people lose patience with all the chaff before they get to the wheat.

3.80 out of 5

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