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David Gray: Waits-ing for Fame

David Gray's most valuable instrument is his voice, though he does play the guitar. As his singing bobs and weaves with each guitar strum of his third album, Sell, Sell, Sell (EMI), his voice appears as another instrument, clipped and punchy, soaring high so that he doesn't just sing over his guitar but mixes with it, giving additional resonance to each lyric. The result is stark, robust tunes that focus not on catchy hooks but on his personality.

Gray has it rough: he's a punk trapped in a singer-songwriter's body. It's no accident that he begins his latest album with the lyric "You've got me by the tongue, I feel like there's nowhere I belong" ("Faster, Sooner, Now"). No one seems to know what to do with his songs -- artfully complex melodies but with an angry coarseness not found in any of Lisa Loeb's hits. He's cynical about the industry he's in -- three albums, three record labels -- and even about his latest CD, with a title like Sell, Sell, Sell. But once the album gets rolling, the cynicism slowly peels away, leaving him to tell his stories, which are laced with dark humor, witty and sardonic by turns, his rusty-throated tremolo howl bursting with energy. His songs have always read well; these picaresque scenes of "burning New York with yellow wings" ("Late Night Radio") could almost stand on their own.

Gray, who was born in Manchester, England, but relocated to a small village in Wales when he was young, says it was that change of scenery that most influenced how he writes today. "Living by the sea had a big effect on me. This rural, pastoral feeling to lots of it, that's where the transcendental imagery comes from. It's very out of step with what is supposed to be this groovy, hip way of presenting things."

It's that feeling, captured in his laconic intimacy, that's enabled Gray to win over cooler, hipper musicians. He opened two tours for Radiohead this spring. "Listening to David Gray," says Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien, "is like going back to your bunk and putting on Blue Valentine by Tom Waits. He's singing right to you."

Indeed it may be that Waits-ian mix of the world-weary with the ingenue, the smoky barroom singer who still views the world with open eyes, that makes Gray so appealing. His repeating mantra of "But you don't telephone" on "What Am I Doing Wrong?" encapsulates the universal frustration of miscommunication, even as he can still poke fun at the way others try to shoehorn his music with the guitar-less, gentle "Folksong." But all is not always moody and shifting -- "Magdalena" is a rollicking, foot-stomping adventure in new love with a Van Morrison flair.

In the end, it comes back to Gray's presentation and his voice, raw and rugged, quavering with yearning and assurance at the same time. With Sell, Sell, Sell he takes one more shot at his own version of eloquent fury, and he comes through loud and clear.

-- Randee Dawn Cohen

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