Soberly strumming balladeers like David Gray are generally as welcome on the pop charts as Ralph Nader is at the Democratic national headquarters. But in a climate that doesn’t favor subtlety — consider Creed’s and Lonestar’s revenge of the power ballads or ”It Wasn’t Me,” Shaggy’s explicit ode to hot fun in the wintertime — Gray’s fourth and most successful album, White Ladder, is clearly a restorative for those hungry for intimacy.
The album is so subtle, in fact, that it even slipped under EW’s radar. (To be fair, it did have a painful birth, first released in Europe in 1999 on the British songwriter’s own independent label, then put out here last March by Dave Matthews’ company.) But ever so slowly, ”White Ladder” has become one of the past year’s most talked about grassroots sensations, thanks to its late blooming radio hit ”Babylon” and an extra distribution boost last fall from BMG.
The gently rousing ”Babylon” itself fills a gap: It’s an oldfangled narrative story song. To the sound of guitar licks that pelt like raindrops, we follow Gray from late night drive to leaf strewn street as he ponders the future of a relationship. On the rest of the album, he remains a levelheaded folkie sort, whether owning up to a drinking problem in ”We’re Not Right” or expecting salvation from ”This Year’s Love.”
The combined mood of the words and music is relentlessly unvarnished and earnest, which is admirable enough. But the melodies and arrangements are sometimes so filmy that they verge on listless, and his voice, a slightly quivering vibrato, is only borderline emotional. The album needs more of ”Please Forgive Me,” its modestly driving opening track, and less of the Bruce Hornsby on a bender sterility of some of its other cuts.
Somewhat overheatedly, Gray has been touted in the industry as an heir to Van Morrison, perhaps because he quotes from two Van the Man songs at the end of his own ”Say Hello Wave Goodbye.” Against that standard, Gray has a ways to go. Ultimately, ”White Ladder” is an interesting phenomenon not as music, but as an indication that a small (and presumably older) segment of the pop audience is sending out a desperate cry for help.