Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Album Review: J Gray-- J Stop Playing Those Sad Songs

It's been nearly a year since our infamous Matthew and the Arrogant Sea article was published, and despite some of the negative implications of that experience, I'm still somewhat intrigued by the group of musicians involved in the project. After spending a couple weeks interviewing with us and sharing the details of a phony record deal that turned out to be either a fragment of one person's imagination or the centerpiece of one of the most dumbfounding publicity stunts in recent local music history (depending on who you ask), Matthew and the Arrogant Sea and its related solo and side projects simply soldiered on during and after the "phony record deal" fallout in the local media, producing a constant stream of material under a handful of different monikers that has been a bit inconsistent at times, but generally more interesting than most of the "indie" folk fodder that passes for "buzzworthy" in DFW/Denton these days. In the process, the group noticeably raised their profile, playing frequent gigs with larger, more established acts while attaining greater recognition in the media and cementing their reputation as a band or group of bands that people tend to take interest in. Dismiss this modest rise in popularity as fickle, flavor of the month favoritism if you must, but it is difficult to deny that MATAS and its many offshoots have produced some solid material here and there, and their prolific recording tendencies and constant reinvention and exploration certainly have to be admired on some level.  

One of the most impressive talents to emerge from Matthew and the Arrogant Sea is J Gray, a 16 year old songwriter who, at times, quite honestly soars above any similar recording artist in the area, including his MATAS band mates. His debut full length, J Stop Playing Those Sad Songs, is a consistent and imaginative collection of haunted, touching songs that reveals both the surprising strengths and predictable shortcomings of a young yet highly talented musician who is just finding his bearings as a recording artist.

Gray's debut is truly an article of the Myspace/bit torrent era in the sense that it plays like a collection of individual tracks rather than a work created as a coherent, multi-part whole. This isn't to say that the whole thing isn't worth listening to, but rather an observation concerning the stand-alone, isolated feel of most of these songs. This tends to work against the album a bit in the sense that some of the songs flirt with repetitiveness and redundancy by the time you get through with them, but the fact that it doesn't end up being much of a problem really says something about the strength of Gray's songwriting and the highlights that make his debut a relatively impressive achievement, particularly for a self released, home recorded offering.  

The record's obvious calling card is Gray's emotive and highly distinctive vocal performance, stylistically hinting at a diverse array of talents like the Fleetwoods' Gary Troxell, frog-in-the-throat Nashville Skyline era Bob Dylan, and even Scritti Politti's Green Gartside, all the while managing to avoid sounding enough like any of the aforementioned vocalists (or anyone else, for that matter) to garner any straight up comparisons. Gray appears to be well aware of this strength, as his vocals are positioned front and center on each and every track, highlighting his soft, sad croon and the thoughtfully abstract lyrical content that often provides these songs with a level of intensity that is impressively literary at times. 

Starting with the title track, an improved and slightly tweaked version of a song that appeared on our most recent Projection compilation, the album commences on an immediate launch to a lonely, introspective headspace that it proceeds to occupy for its duration.  Most of the tracks here are minimal and sparse in their construction: clean, simple acoustic strumming and Gray's reverb heavy vocal tracks comprise most of the material, with occasional touches of drums, bass, layered backing vocals and additional guitar parts that simply add to the album's dreamy, desolate tone of longing and resigned curiosity.  The minimal arrangements work especially well considering that Gray doesn't seem to need much help in making these rather traditional folk/country songs sound mysterious and heartbreaking, and one gets the sense that anything more would undermine the record's overall feel while simultaneously reducing its charm.

Although the standout tracks are many, a trio of songs with similar titles collectively provides perhaps the best indication of Gray's talents, as well as many of the album's emotional high points.  "You Are the God of Sounds" is certainly the strongest track here, and it is a truly stunning thing to hear on a self released local album.   Starting off with simple acoustic strumming, Gray's vocals come in almost immediately and proceed to steal the show with a beautiful, lost highway country influenced melody that sounds distant and almost ghostly in its sweetness. When the rest of the band comes in and joins Gray at the 1:00 mark, it becomes apparent that the song is something special, revealing Gray's impressive ability to come off as damaged and thoughtful beyond his years.  "You Are the Golden Child" similarly combines quiet, full band accompaniment with a gorgeous, reverb heavy vocal melody for optimal effect, while "You Are the Stars" drops the rhythm and utilizes a drier, clearer sound that presents a textbook argument for "less is more."

Missteps such as the overly long and repetitive "Mr. James" hold things back a bit, and the album itself is not void of scattered, minor flaws-- errant lyrical goofs and overzealous use of vocal effects emerge from time to time, demonstrating that Gray certainly has some room to grow as a songwriter.  But these issues pale in comparison to the record's strengths, and they are easily overlooked as Gray's talent and potential continually reveals itself throughout.  It seems almost impossible to predict success in our fickle and downright confusing regional music scene, but a few listens to J Stop Playing Those Sad Songs will likely leave you confident that on his own, J Gray likely has a shot at turing a lot of heads and creating enough of a stir to attain some kind of record deal in the near future.  For real this time.

(4 of 5 stars)

52 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

j is def one of the best songwriters in town

2:26 AM  
Anonymous sallyglass said...

love love love love love

3:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

watch out matthew, J is gonna smoke you like his namesake

5:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like Vetiver-lite to me. 4 stars. Really....

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Joe said...

I just can't get past their fucking name, sorry I know that's shallow but fuck man how could you ever say it with a straight face?

George Carlin:

"What's with all of these soft boy names these days? Blaine, Blake, Brock, Brendon, Todd and Kyle. I bet you $100 that Vinny, Bobby and Joey would beat the shit out of Blaine, Blake and Todd. Soft names make soft men"

11:14 AM  
Anonymous stonedranger said...

Speaking of... I noticed that three members of Forever the Sickest Kids are named Blake, Kyle, and Austin. Sounds about right.

And yes, Matthew and the Arrogant Sea is a dumb name.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how about conan? or peter? fuckface???

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

other soft sissy names:
Burnt Sienna Trio
Current Leaves
George Neal and the Slow Burners
Pinebox Serenade
MOM

12:45 PM  
Anonymous mom is great said...

the album leaf

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

strident zend/autotramps

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

j. gray beats the shit out of anything you did when you were 16.

excellent

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

heartstring stranglers (rolls off the tongue like a canker sore)
the gourds
paper chase
mount righteous


these are a few varied bandnames/bands that can disappear forever

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

j. gray beats the shit out of anything you did when you were 16.

excellent

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i had forgotten how amusing that comment thread was last year

2:42 PM  
Anonymous dumb names said...

radiohead

3:04 PM  
Anonymous dumber names said...

stonedranger!

4:31 PM  
Anonymous on behalf of denton. said...

i'll never understand why this blog picks on denton's finest few.

such as mom, matthew etc, and the stranglers.

all hard working ass busters, who stand far above the rest of this contrived dfw scene. say something when you got something of value to say. don't just speak to hear (or in this case) see what your saying.
it just further proves everyones point when saying, we shot jr is a gossip blog and nothing further. not trying to start a huge battle of words here, i'm merely saying what needed to be said and standing up for those who never shit talk anyone even when it's due.

t-

4:35 PM  
Anonymous stonedranger said...

what are you talking about?

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mom and stranglers--gimmicky overambitious bands whose ideas are better than their actual songs

4:59 PM  
Anonymous defensive listening said...

Youtube has thousands, if not millions, of ignorant, sexist, racist comments on their website, as well as gossipy comments from people who claim to know the people in the videos. Does Youtube therefore have no value? Does that make Youtube simply an ignorant, racist, sexist, gossip site?

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

youtube also isn't run by bloggers who talk shit about half the bands they post on.

poor comparison dL. bad form

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

gossip blog!

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

gossip blog!

5:38 PM  
Anonymous defensive listening said...

I'm talking about comments versus content. The comments are often a reflection of your own community, for better or worse.

As far as talking shit on half the bands, give me a break. Have you ever had an opinion on something that wasn't completely one hundred percent positive or negative? I'm willing to give you credit for being a person capable of complex thought, and that includes opinions other than those espoused by blind local music cheerleaders.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude chill out music is cool

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude chill out music is cool

5:49 PM  
Anonymous blew collar said...

but if they WORK HARD you're supposed to IGNORE that their music sucks! Because they're HARD-WORKING 'mericuns!

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

denton's finest few? wtf? that is like a high school student council statement... we are the hardest working finest students at the school becaue we are like intellectuals and stuff...

nothing against those groups you mention, mom, etc... but denton has like a thousand way rad groups

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and saying that they 'stand far above the rest this contrived DFW scene' is hilarious considering that the heartstring stranglers is one of the more contrived bands in denton.

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

cha cha cha

6:52 PM  
Anonymous judge #2 said...

defensive listenings youtube analogy is actually a very good example, so i say good form. but i also kind of have a brain....


WESHOTJRRULZ

8:07 PM  
Anonymous judge #2 said...

most of the better bands in Denton don't have cheerleaders from dans silver leaf and usually play diy. also most of them arent pretentious sounding or have pretentious sometimes hickish names like the stranglers or revelators or stupid shit like that. you know who im talking about. true there are more good bands in denton as a whole compared to that of dallas or fort-worth but most of those kickass bands arent associated with dans silver leaf or go there to meet up with pete freedman and eat pam food.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

isn't this about j. gray's cd?
HMMMMMMMMMM????????
why are you haters hatin' on the mom unit as usual?
and...I'M NOT A BIG FAN!!!
but ya'll are some dumb jealous little bitches.
oh, the name Matthew and the Arrogant Sea is a fantastic name for that band. they will go further than almost all of you combined.
hate on, you prickless turds.

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

isn't this about j. gray's cd?
HMMMMMMMMMM????????
why are you haters hatin' on the mom unit as usual?
and...I'M NOT A BIG FAN!!!
but ya'll are some dumb jealous little bitches.
oh, the name Matthew and the Arrogant Sea is a fantastic name for that band. they will go further than almost all of you combined.
hate on, you prickless turds.

8:33 PM  
Anonymous jpt said...

I totally think Obama should be president.

9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fuck the country music in denton and fuck people who meet with pete freedman then post about that experience here on weshotjr, hoping for some kind of justification for their shitty music and existence.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous judge #2 said...

first of all that second post was not me, that must bet he incompetant judge #3 because as usual he doesn't know what he's talkign about. does pete freedman hang out at dan's silverleaf? what even makes a band name pretentious? anything besides the band member's names is pretentious i think. and what does
"play diy" even mean (i understand its an acronym)?? you're an idiot

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

J.Gray's album is called "J Stop Playing Those Sad Songs" not "J Quit Playing Those Sad Songs"
look at this myspace.
:)

10:41 PM  
Anonymous so uh said...

where can one purchase and/or hear this album? don't make me think

10:50 PM  
Anonymous J said...

We're are currently curating a cd release show and shooting for mid-july.
keep your eyes open
:)

J.

11:15 PM  
Anonymous J said...

We're are currently curating a cd release show and shooting for mid-july.
keep your eyes open
:)

J.

11:18 PM  
Anonymous so uh said...

where can one purchase and/or hear this album? don't make me think

11:22 PM  
Anonymous fix said...

that shit

11:23 PM  
Anonymous stonedranger said...

My bad... on the title. Not sure what I was thinking there.

12:02 AM  
Anonymous judge #2 said...

judge #2 at 10:02pm wasn't me either. I totally understand what "play diy" means or i wouldnt have typed that. Obviously its a short way of saying that whatever band plays at only diy venues. That dude is a complete jackass and cannot read into what is called an implied statement. And if he had known the story about pete freedman meeting at dans with some country dudes then he wouldn't even have been questioning it on here making him even seem more like a fucking ignorant judge. Truly im the one true judge because i wear tight spandex and look like axel rose. Oh and pretentious and "what even makes a band name pretentious" come on dumb ass? Do we have to go back to aesthetic judge school you moron? Come with the real you dude brah.

12:16 AM  
Anonymous judge #2 said...

10:02pm = 10:07pm

12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

J-Gray.
amazing.
Fantastic.
and the track Mr. James is a bit long,
but it is fucking incredible.
Listen to the story behind it.
anyways,
MATAS, MOM, and other Denton acts that have been mentioned
here are fucking great.
Learn

12:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fuck learn

3:35 PM  
Anonymous the real judge #2 said...

is still a douche, chill the fuck out...

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

clang

6:40 PM  
Anonymous the real judge #2 said...

eat penis jews u limey

2:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

G'day, mate!

7:12 PM  

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