There’s a story about Josh Gray that goes like this: Right as he was putting together his songs, he felt the urge to play them live. So, he did what any other local musician would do — he asked around about the possibility of hopping on a few shows here and there as an opening act. Then, as the performance dates approached, he decided against taking the opportunities provided. The reason?
He wasn’t ready.
Or, at least so he thought. The decision had nothing to with self-esteem, he insisted in a local magazine. It was just a matter of wanting to make sure everything was just right before stepping in front of an audience. He wanted to be sure. He wanted put his best foot forward.
And now, with his six-song self-titled debut EP, he does just that. “Josh Gray,” the album, does Josh Gray, the artist, well. Armed with a tasteful mix of folk that features little more than his voice and acoustic guitar (the final track invites Craig Donovan in for some acoustic lead playing), this is the sound of an artist coming alive. It’s sleek, it’s professional and, most importantly, it’s worth your attention.
The best moments come when he’s his most sordid. “Mortality Blues,” is a wise-beyond-years meditation on The End. “Let me get old before I die / And I’ll never ask a thing no more,” he pleads in the song’s infectious hook, and it’s the kind of reflective line — sung by the kind of raw voice — that takes a few listens before truly having the impact it deserves. Coupled with low-maintenance production, it’s a tiny shot of perfection.
Ditto for “The Outlaw.” Driven by a good, old-fashioned train-beat tempo, the most obvious reference point would of course be Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, but how about someone like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, whose occasional plaintive approach Gray mimics with both ease and consistency. Plus, his Southern aesthetic adds a layer of authenticity that serves the guy well. If nothing else, Gray at least plays the part of Nashville singer-songwriter better than most anyone else around.
“Ballad Of Brady” then arrives and takes Gray to new heights. At nearly five-and-a-half minutes, it’s the set’s de facto centerpiece and, perhaps more essentially, establishes Gray as a legitimate storyteller. The thing is plucked right out of Western scenery, complete with a reference to a “red saloon,” and (spoiler alert) death. It works because of the singer’s grit, his grave voice matching the mood of the tale he weaves.
Even the ballad kind of, sort of works. “Heart Like An Ocean” is a love song that abandons all that country cred he builds up elsewhere. But instead of it falling flat, the track succeeds in a watered-down way. “Her heart’s like an ocean / too vast to swim / but it’s better to die trying’ / Than regret not jumpin’ in,” he asserts, and it tows the line of sweet and cheesy, ultimately landing on the right side of that equation.
But that’s barely a memory by the time the Dead Milkmen cover, “Punk Rock Girl,” comes around, immediately earning the dude all of the cool points. He turns it into a waltz. Honestly. And it works. Holy cow, it works. Because be honest: Who knew a 1988 semi-vague punk rock song from a semi-vague Philadelphia punk rock band could work so tenderly? It’s a victory in re-imagination, but it’s also a testament to his fearlessness.
Which, naturally, brings us full circle. Because the truth is, there’s probably nothing Josh Gray really needed to worry about when it came to debuting his material. It’s only natural that he second-guess himself, sure, but one of the most prominent takeaway from these six songs is that even subpar Josh Gray is probably worthy enough of an engaged audience. He’s got a boatload of talent and an even bigger amount of taste.
Saying he’s ready now is only the beginning.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***