Island Fire is the fourth studio album in just five years by enigmatic UK songstress Gemma Ray. Those releases include a delightfully eccentric covers album and original recordings that showed equal measures of reinvention and adaptability. Ray has a highly individual songwriting style and a real flair for melody. Vocally, she’s the retro poppet with a dose of folk and blues sensibility.
The album begins with a tune that scarcely needs a play to sink into your psyche. Alight! Alive! has a deceptively simple melody accentuated by the sudden rush of a chorus that brings new meaning to the term uplifting. Lit by little touches of sonic inspiration, its a perfect three minutes of pop. On the contrast, she’s just at home with the torch song confession of Flood And A Fire or the sharp balladry of Fire House.
Ray might not have the gossamer fragility of Julee Cruise, but she can sweeten saccharin and many of her songs would slot into a David Lynch movie with equal ease. That great moment when the everyday meets the surreal comes alive in Rescue Me which opens with Ray “walking round the supermarket/blissed out in a dream.” A saw-like theremin effect, used elsewhere on the record too, adds a spacey touch of mystery to a simple yet fabulous melody delivered in a softly matter-of-fact croon by Ray.
Make It Happen starts as a film noir workout with Rays ethereal multi-tracked vocal set against staccato chords and keyboard swirl. This gives way to lavish orchestration that elevates the song quite majestically. The concept of film runs right across the record, giving it a scale and presence that’s larger (and stranger) than life. It would be equally easy to pick out plus points from all the songs here, and if the 12 originals arent enough, a couple of Sparks covers are a bonus.
Gemma Ray provides yet another example of an artist who has existed unjustly under the mainstream radar for too long. If Island Fire doesnt beam her seriously upwards, then ear specialists better prepare for record consultations.
Essential Tracks: Rescue Me, Make It Happen, Alight! Alive! and Fire House.