Gemma Hayes - The Hollow Of Morning
“Leprechauns, shamrock, Guinness, horses running through council estates, toothless simpletons, people with eyebrows on their cheeks” was how Alan Partridge famously described the Emerald Isle in the mid 90's. Since then Ireland has, of course, suffered two other major tragedies...Boyzone and Westlife. Hadn't they suffered enough? It was surely time for them to 'bounce back' and prove “dere's more to Oireland dan dis”.
In 2002, Tipperary-born Gemma Hayes was a Mercury Nominee for her debut LP 'Night On My Side', which deservedly won praise from both sides of the Atlantic. This was a young singer / songwriter with a face like a Photoshop dream of Kylie and Uma who wrote Radio 2 melodies fired with the edge of My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star and the production genius of Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT). Armed with a trio of self-penned semi hits 'Hanging Around', 'Back Of My Hand' and 'Let A Good Thing Go', Hayes was a sure thing, back of the net.
Well, until the 2nd LP, which was made about as welcome as a B*witched reunion. 'The Roads Don't Love You' became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The album lacked the contrast of the debut – it had neither the moonlit intimacy or the MBV 'wall of sound'. Whilst a solid enough record, it walked a line too middle of the road and drowned amongst the faceless waves of acoustic singer songwriters flooding the market at the time. The man on the street shrugged his shoulders and bought James Blunt instead.
So it's a damn shame to report album trois, 'The Hollow Of Morning', also fails to fully regain that early spark. Although it ultimately fails to capture the early winning spirit, we must at least applaud her for not break necking further down the highway marked 'T4 Roadshow - This Way' in search of ol' filthy lucre.
The attempt to regain the integrity of the debut is there from the acoustic opener to the instrumental closer. It's an exhausted, broken voice Gemma carries throughout, with imagery of teary goodbyes, 'guided by the darkness','a wave from a car as it exits the driveway' and 'the quickest way to leave it all behind'. Ian Curtis to Reception! Whilst this helps it create a full, cohesive atmosphere, it also ultimately fails to let anything stand out. It almost becomes its own parody, or 'textbook' Hayes in the words of Mr Partridge.
It's frustrating as its an intelligent, occasionally beautiful and well-crafted record with that timeless voice – a breathless Joni, a lighter Hope Sandoval - but the minute it finishes, you'll struggle to remember what just happened. As if the Men In Black have just waved that silver flashlight at you. It's a bit like watching Hugh Laurie in 'House'. It's structurally sound and made with quality materials, but you really know you're being sold the same deal over and over with diminishing returns. A good idea, but just the one.
There are a number of lovely 'blips-on-the-heart-monitor' moments though. The albums opening bars promise great things, evoking the ghost of Jose Gonzalez version of 'Heartbeats', as does the final minute of 'Don't Forget', which feels like a crocodile's death roll by comparison, writhing to a near 'Design For Life' sized drum-tattoo climax.
The towering highlight is noticeably the most ambitious. Over six minutes, 'At Constant Speed' is a real charmer, growing from a tiny sparkle in the dark to a new wave, skinny tie-skyline finish. The synth riff specially flown in from 1982 threatens to cut loose into 'Bette Davis Eyes' or 'Just What I Needed' by The Cars at any moment. It's a genius, but subtle, use of colour of which I wish there had been more. To really appreciate the darkness you got to see a little sunshine.
On its own the album is a modest success, but in the shadow of the debut it fails at every turn. There's nothing new here, nothing that wasn't done better on the debut or the brilliant early E.P.'s '4:35am' and 'Work To A Calm'. Until Gemma Hayes can find someone, or something, to illuminate her indisputable talent, I'd say for now keep the 'Night' to remember.