sense of guilt runs almost imperceptibly through this record, possibly born of Gemma Hayes’ upbringing in Ballyporeen, County Tipperary, the youngest of eight children, and the restrictive sense of right & wrong that Irish Catholicism can burn into someone. This is a record made by someone finding their feet, musically and spiritually, a record made by someone who wants to let go almost as much as she wants to hold on.
Produced by Mercury Rev’s Dave Fridmann and Gemma herself, Night On My Side swerves between melancholy acoustic country and pummelling, edge-of-chaos guitar noise. There are echoes of PJ Harvey, that other country girl who found musical salvation in the midst of rural boredom, but while Hayes may be adept with bright melodies and upfront guitar playing, she has little of Polly’s snarling, bitter fury and industrial psychosis. Beth Orton’s modern plaintive folk is perhaps closer in mood if not in sound, but the influences most clearly reverberating through Gemma Hayes’ debut album are My Bloody Valentine and the Buckley’s. Her voice, more mid-west than Dublin, is as beguiling curled around ruminative ballads like "Ran For Miles" (“today I ran for miles / just to see what I was made of”) as it is drenched, eyes closed, in feedback and distortion on "Let A Good Thing Go". Meanwhile her guitar playing switches from country-esque twangs and delicate acoustic sweeps to full-on squall. She doesn’t attempt to emulate the pedantic attention to detail of Kevin Shields, largely avoiding the dreamlike wooziness of Loveless (except maybe on "Tear In My Side"), but rather builds on the cathartic emotional impact that feedback and noise can lend to melancholic melodies.
From her sleeve notes and arrangements, Gemma obviously sees music as a spiritual and emotional force, something to be lost in and redeemed by, yet her lyrics reveal a soul sometimes at odds with itself, a girl bound by obligation and expectation as much as she craves escape and excitement. "Hanging Around" and "I Wanna Stay" show someone eager to understand and be satisfied by simpler pleasures, craving comfort as much as excitement, wishing to be happy doing the things that other people do, but that wont be enough and she knows it.
Like all country music, Night On My Side is about God and love and hurt and home. Learning the differences between instinct and impulse, starting to question received wisdom, and finding out that love can be beautiful as well as painful. “Got a boot full of dreams / and a pocket full of reasons not to stay” she sings on "My God", but as her voice quavers around the melody we’re unsure whether she’s singing “my God” or “my guy”, and so is she. Naïve and clumsy in places, this is nevertheless a beautiful, after hours record full of heart and promise.
Reviewed by: Nick Southall
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01