David Gray’s debut U.S. release, White Ladder , could have been a great movie soundtrack. It’s a collection of evocative, sometimes thrilling songs, that, were it played over a film, would enhance the drama on the screen. My choice would be Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey , because there’s something about Mr. Gray’s voice and his music that captures both the cool reserve of England and the sad beauty of Los Angeles.
Mr. Gray is a Welshman who worked his way through the pubs of the United Kingdom to a substantial following. A do-it-yourself kind of guy, he was planning to release White Ladder in the United States on his own, when the artist Dave Matthews, a big fan, convinced Mr. Gray to become the first artist on ATO Records, the label that Mr. Matthews and his manager Coran Capshaw have launched.
Stylistically, Mr. Gray is 180 degrees away from Mr. Matthews, who, with his enormous band, is a lot like the yuppie camper who roughs it by dragging the contents of his home into the woods. By comparison, Mr. Gray is out there with a pup tent and a sleeping bag.
A large part of White Ladder ‘s appeal is its pretty, spare, song arrangements. Mr. Gray pulls off a melding of traditional acoustic instruments-guitar, bass, piano-with modern-day electronica. He likes to build songs, starting out with just his voice and a guitar or piano and then adding on the layers. But the synthesizers, drum machines and digital tricks always remain in the background.
But the real backbone of this album is Mr. Gray’s quavery honey-and-bourbon voice, which could give tension and sensuality to a nursery rhyme (one quality that he does share with Mr. Matthews). Mr. Gray’s pipes are deceptively agile. One minute his voice sounds as fragile as construction paper; the next it’s as sexy-curvy as a Gibson girl. Listening to him, the old folk will hear the ghosts of many performers who have come and gone before him: Paul Young, David Baerwald, Harry Nilsson, even Leon Russell.
One of Mr. Gray’s favorite albums is reportedly Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska . Well, Mr. Gray’s music is spare, but it’s prettier than that journey into darkness. The only song that approaches (but never achieves) that kind of pit-of-the-stomach starkness is “Nightblindness,” which seems to be about a couple whose luck and bank account have run dry.
Still, parts of White Ladder sound as if Mr. Gray has been listening to, appropriately, Mr. Springsteen’s movie work, such as “Streets of Philadelphia” and “Secret Garden,” which ended up on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack. And the album’s lovely first track, “Please Forgive Me,” could be an homage to Nilsson’s Midnight Cowboy theme, “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
If only Mr. Gray could write lyrics as well as Mr. Springsteen or the late Nilsson. Weak words are White Ladder ‘s big liability-especially the title track and “Silver Lining,” which bog down the middle of this album. But it’s a testament to Mr. Gray’s voice and his arranging skills that when he sings, “Let go your heart/let go your head/and feel it now,” as he does on the soaring “Babylon,” the lyrics do not sound near as clichéd as they look in print.
When Mr. Gray gets his hands on a well-written song, as he does on the CD’s penultimate track-a cover of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”- White Ladder briefly becomes more than just of extremely well-done mood music.
In its original form, the song was a synthesizer-driven tidal wave of cold ’80’s venom. But Mr. Gray strips the arrangement down to little more than acoustic guitar and bass and his heat-inducing vocals, and makes the song his own. In his hands, the tune is more sad than angry and the spare, quasi-Dylanesque treatment turns the spotlight onto the human drama: the breakup-in-progress of a tortured love affair. “Under the deep red light/I can see the make-up/Sliding down,” Mr. Gray sings, and for a moment, you are there in the bar with him, trying not to stare at the trails of wet mascara.