Gareth Davies-Jones, Water & Light (Heading West Music, 2008)
Water & Light may well be one of the most perfect singer-songwriter albums that you will hear this year, or indeed any year. Hailing from Bangor in Northern Ireland, Davies-Jones borrows just enough from the folk traditions to imbue Water & Light with a deliciously inviting, roots-infused sound that avoids any folk clichés, whilst maintaining a breezy pop hue that is sure to appeal far beyond any genre boundaries.
Davies-Jones effortlessly reaches the anthem-like heights of Show of Hands with a number of particularly strong songs, that might easily infiltrate the folk psyche and could soon be heard the length and breadth of the country. "Scottish Lights" is a soaring tribute to the lighthouses that line the coast of Scotland, marvelling at their statuesque physical presence and yearning for the sense of safety that they offer. The swirling refrain is couched in such romantic inference and aching comfort, that the call for a guiding light could just as easily be a lover's serenade, or a heartfelt plea to a more metaphysical presence. "Princess Victoria" recalls the story of a 1953 ferry disaster, gathering a frantic pace as the disaster unfolds, rounded off by the gentle acoustic guitar and soothing voice of Davies-Jones as he brings to a close his fittingly moving tribute.
"Breathe" eschews traditional influences for a beautifully crafted pop arrangement, that should reward Davies-Jones with endless radio play, with its instantly memorable chorus and life-affirming, hope-drenched lyrics. Similarly intimate pop-soaked reveries are forthcoming on the opening track "Borderland" that does an excellent job of warming you to the album right from the outset.
Davies-Jones shows a gentle persuasion when his heartfelt lyrics take a political turn. "First Light" mulls over the paradox of war, the glamorisation by the media and the ignorance of those that escape unaffected by the atrocities supposedly carried out on their behalf, whilst "Butterfly" talks of the simple needs of the third world and the failure of wealthy nations to rise to the challenge. The gorgeously contemplative "Cost" ponders what it is that society really values in this day and age, and wonders how we managed to get it all so wrong. These three songs appear on the album in this order, and together they tell an affecting story, highlighting the plight of those ravaged by war, famine or lack of basic medial care and contrasting this with the wanton demands of a selfish, materialistic society.
I have to make a final mention of the one traditional cover included on Water & Light. When you first notice the inclusion of "Black Velvet Band" towards the end of the album, you might worry whether this is a serious error of judgement, but you couldn't be more wrong. Davies-Jones doesn't really do that much to alter this raucous pub favourite -- he slows it down a bit, he gives it a slightly more contemporary rhythm, and he adorns it with a pared-down, reflective arrangement. And it works -- it works better than you can ever imagine, soaked in an almost painful regret, unlike anything that I have ever witnessed within these lyrics.
Water & Light is absolutely faultless. It's beautifully and thoughtfully assembled, both in terms of writing and performance -- there is not one single extraneous part. This is sure to propel Davies-Jones to the wider audience that he so obviously deserves. I really can't recommend this album highly enough!