There's something decidedly wrong with David Gray's brand of emotional, accessible, well-crafted pop music: It doesn't suck. Somewhere among the Beck imitators and latter-day Dylan wannabes, Gray managed to sneak in the Commercial Success door, right past the guy tattooing "No Talent" on the foreheads of the washed masses. The ingredients don't add up -- one man, random instruments (think piano and pedal steel) and a lot of studio work -- but he's still selling out huge theaters and getting serious airplay. Dave Matthews, of all people, once cited Gray as one of his biggest musical influences.
Despite all the odds, Gray keeps producing album after album of music that simply refuses to stand still and be dull. Unjustly dismissed by some as yet another underground booga-basement drum-machine-piano-and-guitar guy, his work betrays that cliché and runs the gamut from the sublime (his last big single, "Babylon") to straight-up rock & roll (the ironically titled Sell Sell Sell). Under the radar of almost everyone but the Irish (in Ireland, his previous album, White Ladder, is still inexplicably in the top ten as this goes to press), Gray has somehow pulled off the un-pull-off-able: music that's as real as it is accessible. Though neither quality is in itself tantamount to a great album, there's a minimalism and honesty about his most recent effort that seem to pervade every track. Colored by both the recent death of Gray's father and the birth of his son, A New Day at Midnight is at once darker and lighter than his previous efforts, yet it never sounds schizophrenic. This sort of surprising contrast is what makes it work so well. Gray's claimed that this album, recorded in a ten-by-ten-foot studio, forced him to be more personal than before, and songs such as "The Other Side" bear out that fact with a fierce definition of character. "Dead in the Water" and "Kangaroo" have the hooks to be singles but don't really want to be -- and that's part of their charm. For all its commercial appeal, Midnight still reminds you of the really talented guy you knew in college who turned his bathroom into a one-man recording studio -- four-track in the sink, guitar in the tub, mic perched on top of the toilet tank. No matter what he churned out, it was always, strangely, pretty blasted good.