William Gray is a songwriter from Leeds in the UK but currently residing in Hangzhou, China. For those who are unaware of his musical output and background; Gray has been writing and performing as a solo alternative-folk artist since the release of his debut album ‘None of the Above’ circa May 2009, with which he immediately made an impression on the UK songwriting landscape, culminating in a BBC session and interview. His previous band, The Smokestacks, delivered a distinctive blues-rock punch as a 5-piece, touring around the UK and gigging at time-honoured venues such as Liverpool’s Cavern Club. While the ensemble was equally no less of a stranger to the BBC and also garnered major label interest, they eventually called it quits following the departure of the original bassist and, later, the drummer. The road to ‘Flounce’, as I later found out turned out to be coated with a musical tarpaulin that seem to spread much further than the scope of William Gray’s impressive discography thus far.
To see the true making of any artist, you’d need to dig into the roots of the family tree where you might expect to find some kind of music coursing through their veins or, perhaps, a complete lack of it. The Gray clan it seems, sway towards the former in this respect with one question after another uncovering what must be years of musical influence and inspiration for the young William Gray. As a veteran musician and songwriter in his own right, William Gray’s old man, Al Gray, has been plugging out the jams since the psychedelic 60s. Looking a bit closer, I found out that Al Gray is an English musician, for a long time based in Wales, who was once signed with United Artists Records and released his 1976 single ‘The Sweetest Thing (Forever)’ before the company was absorbed by EMI in 1980. Interestingly, the single was recorded during the same time period when Queen conjured up their 1975 classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, both tracks evidently recorded at the legendary Rockfield Studios near Monmouth in Wales.
Around that time, Al Gray also lived for a time in an old train on an abandoned railway line where his musical collaborators established Loco Studios, and where Oasis eventually recorded tracks including material for their 1995 album, ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’. While Al Gray’s recorded material remains something of a rarity in the internet world, he seems to be somewhat of a pioneer of the home-recording age as evidenced by his cover of Motown’s, The Four Tops song ‘Walk Away Renee’ recorded back in 1986. The list of collaborations, artists, studios and venues are an article of their own and must have had a massive effect on Gray (the younger’s) life, but I digress, we are here to flounce. So let’s get stuck in.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to experience ‘Flounce’ in the making from its primitive demo state all the way through to the final mastered version. From the get-go, Flounce flourishes with richly layered synths that blend from milky blues to glistening golds. With keyboards, guitars, samples and the odd brass section that all carry Gray’s songwriting to another plain, it unfolds in quite a different way to 2015’s Tish EP. It is a much denser and eclectic recording than its predecessor with the layered synths and samples giving essential backbone to the overall sound much like that found on Solid Space’s 1982 classic ‘Space Museum’, or The Modern Lovers (1976), and finds William Gray sitting quite comfortably with.
On first hearing earlier versions of the opening song, ‘Child’s Play’, I honestly found it disjointed from Gray’s previous music. It felt slightly alien at first and I didn’t really know what compartment of my brain to put it in. I found out later that the main ‘instrument’ the song hinges around is a toy keyboard belonging to Gray’s son. As the weeks and months went by, the song blossomed and the gentle finger taps of each note, guitar, bass, vocals and all the subtle clicks of a real touch rather than a digital clone of some sort (which probably could have been easily achieved) became a treat.
The bass guitar is so fluid and textured that it’s like gravity pulling on the height of the samples and synths, keeping them from floating away. This element is consistent throughout the album, as are the beautifully recorded vocals whose warmth and texture is found in the dynamic frequencies of its baritone. It is at times broken by an unsympathetic invading sample which plays an important role in portraying Gray’s role as a stay at home dad whose silence might be occasionally interrupted by a wailing toddler or a noisy toy with nowhere else to go.
‘Thoughts In My Head’, ‘Heather’ and ‘Riddle Me Thistle’ are much crunchier sounding punk rock riffs with wide open guitars and reverb that walks the chord sequence on a circular mantra, with a minimal amount of brass and wah-wah pedal that adds colour and vibrancy to the songs. A subtle lift in percussion threads underneath it all while Gray’s trademark humour and puns are seemingly nonsensical yet tie in nicely with Flounce’s left-of-centre political satire, since wordplay has recently been banned in China. ‘Horizon’ for me, reveals the darker side of Flounce. Lyrically, it references PM2.5, nausea and shortness of breath, and listeners can form their own conclusion about lyrics such as, ‘get the wrong impression/there is no repression here/creeping up behind you/try to get outside your fear.’ Again the synth is used effectively in contrasting the dystopian lyrics and brings a nice pop edge to the foreboding guitar riff while both instruments are given plenty of space to flex and swell during the instrumental interlude.
The most bizarre moment of the album comes in the form of, ‘Suck It In Spit It Out’. It reminds me a lot of Ian Dury and the Blockheads; it is abrasive, rude, spoof-ish and full of punk attitude with plenty of repetition, suck AND spit! Listening that bit closer you can hear Gray literally sucking and spitting the lyrics over his breath in a genuine effort to deliver the tune. Additionally check out the ranting backing vocals that surprisingly work really well as if they were cheekily nabbed from somewhere off the Pixies, ‘Surfer Rosa’. ‘Anyway’ is a lighthearted contrast from its guitar-menacing predecessor. Twanging reverbs and glistening guitars resonate over a bouncy drum track. It is very introspective, contemplative and evokes a nostalgic mind. ‘Difficult Sum’ is comparably altruistic with some nice whistling synths that verge on piercing the ears while being earthed by a gravelly blues riff with lead guitar licks that twist in and out of the chunky guitars.
The title track, ‘Flounce’ is where William Gray’s use of synths veritably shines. Check out the dreamy swelling reverbs and resonating echoes as they are layered and wind around one another. They are grossly hypnotic and Gray is reveling in it. Minimal touches of backwards drum loops are enough to hand the reins over to the synth while the vocals are for the first time given the back room. ‘Regardless’ is a cheerful ending to this ten-song album. It is a self-mockery of sorts and perhaps gives the artist reason to be satisfied with his underground status. For fans and audiophiles you’ll be glad to get your filthy mitts on a little hidden extra something (ssshhh!) ‘Baby You Smell So Good’ about ten minutes after ‘Regardless’, finds Gray dramatising his performance in a rather sarcastic tone, singing with a country-Americana vocal styling with a synth that is painted thick and pointed sky-high with an eleven on the dial.
Overall a gutsy new release from William Gray. Definitely a venture with playful new sounds, charismatic, satirical and nonsensical lyrics with bursts of lighthearted pop infused with dreamy, hypnotic synth and a punk attitude. Flounce will be digitally released worldwide on March 17th 2016 with Medic Independent Records.
Check out the artist online – http://www.williamgray.bandcamp.com
Video for ‘Child’s Play’, the first single to be taken from ‘Flounce’.