A burst of creativity has resulted in singer/songwriter Ray Wilson releasing two albums in 2016 - I've treated it as one project - call it a double album if you will. Whatever you call it, it's a hell of an achievement to make two albums where the consistency of the songwriting remains so high.
Ray has managed it with the release of Song For A Friend & Makes Me Think Of Home.
You may know as the vocalist of the band Stiltskin, who had a big worldwide hit with the song Inside - which was used in a Levi's commercial back in 1994.
Ray then went on to become the lead vocalist for Genesis, following the departure of Phil Collins in 1997. He recorded one album with Genesis, Calling All Stations. I must say I LOVE this album and think both Rutherford & Banks missed a trick then by not continuing with Ray. Indeed, Mike Rutherford states in his autobiography that he did not feel Ray was a songwriter!!! How wrong he was!
Anyway, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks then decided that they's put Genesis on hold and Ray went off to establish a solo career releasing his first studio album Change in 2003.
Song For A Friend is Ray's sixth solo studio release.
It's often a very gentle listen. This doesn't mean to say it hasn't got teeth and depth - because it has but it's presented in a soft and subtle way. And it's also got mountains of Heart.
The songs are very personal to Ray and working closely with Stiltskin guitarist Uwe Metzler, Ray has created an introspective and stripped back approach that suits the songs and their subject matter perfectly. If Jackson Browne had come up with this album of these songs, I reckon he'd be rather pleased.
Ray has a lovely burr to his voice and it is shown to it's best advantage with the often delicate presentation.
The opening track Old Book On The Shelf sets out the album's stall from track 1. Full of cinematic imagery, it gently rocks it's way into your subconscious and it's definitely one you'll be humming to yourself later.
Over My Dead Body begins with a lovely acoustic strum with Ray almost whispering his vocals. It's a lovely song, tinged with regret and sadness, which is a theme that continues throughout the whole album. But it's not a maudlin listen at all. Sometimes sadness can almost be uplifting and cathartic - very much in the vein of another of my albums of 2016 -
Cold Light Of Day continues the theme of loss and redemption based around another lovely melody and has some beautiful minor chord action unexpectedly slipped into the music. And Uwe provides some nice electric guitar work on this track. Indeed he underpins the album for Ray with some exquisite touches throughout.
The title track, Song For A Friend, is the touchstone of the whole album. It's a song written for Ray's close friend James Lewis, who killed himself after he had been confined to a wheelchair by an accident - and he did this by wheeling himself into the sea.
Ray has turned his grief into a touchingly nostalgic tribute to his lost friend. The song actually moved my wife to tears when she first heard it.
How long Is Too Long introduces some drums and organ into the guitar based mix and again it's Ray's pleading vocal that lifts the track and tugs at the heartstrings.
Not Long Til Springtime has more acoustic guitar picking and gentle ringing arpeggios before the piano joins in the musical tapestry. This is a song about the light at the end of the tunnel but presented in a very gentle and encouraging way.
Miscommunication is the theme for the next song Backseat Driving with it's insistent acoustic guitar picking and Ray's once more pleading vocal.
The mood is lifted somewhat with the following song Parallel Souls. Complete with handclaps - a real around the campfire gentle singalong.
photo courtesy of Marcus Hanselmann
Tried and Failed is a relationship song. Again based beautifully around a simple acoustic guitar backing with a touch of electronica sweeps and a lovely slice of saxophone towards the end. It's another gentle, lilting song with a heartfelt vocal from Ray.
The album closer is an absolute show stopper. It's the only cover on the album. But what a cover.
How many artists would be brave enough to present an acoustic version of a Pink Floyd song?
Well, Ray Wilson has, and it's an absolute triumph! It's High Hopes from the Pink Floyd album, The Division Bell.
It's a fantastic way to close the album, gently epic with a superb version of the solo on electric guitar that finishes the song - just as it closes The Divison Bell. Truly inspired thinking.
photo courtesy of Kevin Dixon/Team Rock
In October - Ray will release his second album this year, Makes Me Think Of Home.
Where as Song For A Friend is a quiet and reflective album, Makes me Think is much more electric and uplifting. Although it also has some gentle moments, you can see why Ray chose to release these as two separate albums as they convey two differing moods.
Makes Me Think Of Home opens up with the uplifting They Never Should Have Sent You Roses complete with it's tasty electric guitar arpeggios. It sounds like something U2 or maybe a Daniel Lanois inspired Peter Gabriel could have come up with. Indeed, Ray has always had the shade of the Peter Gabriel about his voice.
Track 2 is The Next Life which has a bluesy feel and is similar fare to songs that Ray has produced in the past. A bit of filler but not a killer.
Tennessee Mountains puts Ray back into the driving seat with a song that could easily have fitted into Songs For A Friend but was probably a little bit too summery for that album's autumnal mood. It's an acoustic driven song with some lovely guitar phrases and harmonies. And some very nice electric guitar work to lift the song in the end.
The atmospherics return for Worship The Sun which develops into another mid-tempo to slow rocker. The one thing you immediately notice n this second album is the appearance of drums on every track driving it along. The saxophone makes a welcome return and helps gives the song more interest and a bit of additional colour.
For me, the killer track on the album comes next - a bright shining light of both albums - the uplifting and hopeful Amen To That. It shows Ray also has a pop sensibility, although it very rarely sees the light of day. So clap your hands and sing along. AMEN TO THAT :)
The acoustic slide introduces the next track Anyone Out There. It's a slow burner of a track that builds nicely with swathes of electronica and electric stings under the layers of guitar and keyboard. And then the saxophone adds another dimension as it brings the track to a climax. I can see this being a live favourite with the option to improvise at the end.
Don't Wait For Me is the most unsettling track on the album - complete with minor chords, odd vocal twists and unusual instrumentation. Does it work? I'm not sure although I applause Ray for trying something a bit different.
Track 9 of 10 is Calvin & Hobbes. It is based around the American Comic Strip of Bill Watterson. It's a lovely piano based ballad underpinned by soaring harmonies and sympathetic strings. It's epic in every sense of the word and is definitely the most Prog of all the songs on the two albums.
The closing track on the album is The Spirit. It's a country tinged song with wild west imagery and the accompanying whistling and acoustic guitar and tambourine. It's a very nice way to close the album.
Makes Me Feel Like Home needs more emotional investment to reveal it's beauty than the more immediate and intimate Song For A Friend but both are ultimately rewarding.
And as I stated earlier, it is quite some achievement to produce two contrasting albums worth of high quality material.
Should you invest - most certainly. Give Ray a chance - he deserves that much at the very least.
Twitter - @RayWilson_20