A self-taught guitarist picking his way through skeletal compositions while offering lessons in life via first-hand experience of so many wrong steps: exactly what the music industry needs more of, that. But while the on-paper attraction of Josh Bray is minimal given the abundance of man-with-guitar-and-melancholy sorts doing the rounds ‘til they’re dizzy from all the shots and sore from the stools they perch on while performing, this debut collection contains moments that leap out, taking the listener by surprise and suggesting that, maybe, here’s an artist who could cut it with the best of his kind.
Raised in Devon and now based in London, Bray’s indie-folk approach stems not from a schooling in the roots of folk’s traditional forms; instead, this is a man whose childhood was soundtracked by hard rock, from Pearl Jam to Pantera. As such there’s an amateurish charm to some of his playing, the most effective arrangements here the ones that muddle their way along with alluring simplicity. As when Bray decides to up the volume, as on Hard Living and Living Free, he comes across as a one-man unplugged tribute to his former idols, rather than a force in his own right. Vocally, too, he can reach beyond his limits – what should be a roar akin to Eddie Vedder can come through like Layne Staley, from beyond the grave.
But Bray is certainly capable of catching an audience off-guard, with some disarmingly tender and direct songwriting. The River Song is a delightful opener, as bright as the first rays of a brilliant dawn – one almost has to squint into it to find the detail, but when it becomes apparent it’s obvious this could be a real calling-card number for its maker. Draw in the Lines is an excellently bitter but wonderfully vivid-of-lyric song that combines cutting acoustic guitar with mournful strings, and Indian Gin a woozy strum-along with a coda that finds Bray supported by fine backing vocals. Typically, the more instantly appealing tracks are those recorded at Oxford’s Truck Studios with the Bennett brothers, Joe and Robin; those captured in London, with Howard Gray, can seem uncomfortably overblown by comparison, despite the producer’s fine CV (including Manic Street Preachers, Van Morrison and The Pretenders).
An album that’d sit nicely between solo efforts from the likes of Roddy Woomble and Fyfe Dangerfield, Bray’s debut is, at its best, a really accomplished, affecting set that should act as a springboard for the artist. Come album two, the newcomer could well be a contender proper.