Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Kevin Ray. If you're lucky enough to have friends who are great but undiscovered singer/songwriters, you may know the special, bittersweet private pleasure of cherishing their self-released records as deeply as, and just maybe more deeply than, those by popular icons. (It's actually quite a lot like being a theater fan, for whom a handful of great but not widely known actors can loom as large in the consciousness as any movie star.) That is certainly the case with the incorrigibly brilliant Kevin Ray, whose first CD I bought from him after hearing him play his searing, jewel-cut, art song-like piano/vocal pieces at Highland Grounds' famous Wednesday night open mike in the late 1990s. It's fair to compare the musical and aesthetic impact this quietly intense, often lachrymose, knife-sharp collection of heartsick tunes had on me to that of another more famous keyboard troubadour, Rufus Wainwright, and it's not at all a stretch to call Ray one of my favorite singer/songwriters, a trade he continues to ply on record and for the musical theater (his Central Avenue Breakdown was a NYMF highlight two years ago).
He's written several classic should-be-hits since this 1997 debut, most of them with lyrics and tones far more amicable and accessible than this batch of oblique, sprawling mini-operas. But much as I prefer R.E.M.'s less-scrutable early records, I particularly cherish the darkly glimmering corners of these crystalline, cavernous, word-drunk tunes about despair, jealousy, and depression, all delivered with Ray's perfect-pitch Steve Perry pop tenor over his stark, muscular piano grooves.
As with the Wainwright debut, I find it emotionally overwhelming to listen to this whole album in toto, though maybe for different reasons. I think it's because it palpably captures for me Los Angeles' unique brand of sun-kissed loneliness, its intoxicating combination of anonymity and oblivion, with all its paradoxical beauty and terror and resignation. This may admittedly be a case of me back-projecting my own moments of lostness in that kiss-me-deadly town onto the record that served as their indelible soundtrack. But isn't that what we do with all the music we love: fuse it to our own feelings and experiences? This transference can be a mysterious and solitary rite--even, or perhaps especially, when it's with music made by people we know.