Recorded between Christmas and New Years Eve 2009, It’s A Shame About Gemma Ray is a great example in making the best out of the worst time of year. Idle hands, idle time, and lo and behold an album is born. Cover albums, you can take’em or leave’em. They’re a curio at best and you’d have to be the worst kind of fan to prefer ‘the cover album’ to the artists own work. For a relative new-comer, often it’s the artists covered that will prick the ears up — Sonic Youth? Gun Club? Mudhoney? — and draw their attention. 16 songs, 5 days, a girl and her guitar and thankfully no songs about Santa Claus.
The general rule of thumb with the cover album — the more unplanned, the more unaffected by indulgence, the better it is for everybody. With this album, Ray’s third, it’s a quick knock-off that works. Opening up her songbook, her other songbook, Ray hits the showtunes, the slow-tunes and some downright woah… tunes. The choice of content, the torch song blues of Etta Fitzgerald and Etta James sidles up alongside the gravelly blues of The Gun Club and The Alex Harvey Band. The girls and the boys are evenly represented and they’re all treated to the same stark and unfettered arrangement, with Ray content to let the notes hang and flicker, her voice staying well within reach of the reverb-ed twang of the guitar.
It’s a real no-tell motel kinda record, bare bones and cheap frills but full of surprises — like listening to PJ Harvey circa Rid Of Me minus the man-hate. Though you gotta question what kinda gal mixes her Gershwin with her Gallon Drunk, if not one who likes to occasionally stray on the wild side. Leading off with the Drunk’s “Put A Bolt In The Door” its as much an invitation upstairs (in Ray’s clipped Essex-bred tones) as is Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” is to sit down and make yourself comfortable. Shirley Bassey’s “Big Spender” and Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” both harmoniously skip along, a bright moon in an otherwise cloudy sky, but the real oddball moment of the record given over to Ray’s pairing of Sonic Youth’s “Drunken Butterfly” with the theme to Rosemary’s Baby. Sonic Youth fans might arch an eyebrow, but Kim Gordon should be pleased with it.
For anyone not around in the rose-tinted 90’s, the title may seem like an oddity, but it bares some truth. It would’ve been interesting for Ray to take the elements that she brought into the studio and handed in her own compositions to be judged. With a lot of taste and little invention, Ray handily shows off her record collection and pulls something unexpected out of the bag at the same time. Perhaps a little too corny to throw in a Lemonheads tune to match the title, but with what’s on offer, there’s no real shame about that.