Album Review: Grace Cummings – Ramona

[Virgin / ATO; 2024]

Being someone else isn’t new for Grace Cummings. As both a musician and an actor, she knows how to coax out a memorable performance – just see the transfixing video for “Heaven” from her 2022 album Storm Queen, slicked back hair and her impossibly wide and unblinking eyes fixated into the viewer’s soul. (Keen eyes may have also caught her in the recent Cairnes brothers movie Late Night with the Devil.)

On her new album Ramona, she becomes the titular character. Inspired by the 1964 Bob Dylan song “To Ramona”, she sought to fill herself with “intensity and melodrama” and casts herself against lush backdrops of gothic strings, piano, and guitar. If Storm Queen was an intense one-woman theatrical show, Ramona is a widescreen Hollywood blockbuster.

On paper and sometimes in practice the new outfit works, adding bombast to Cummings’ most intense snarl or a fragile lake of ice for her to show off her vocal manoeuvrability against. The final moments of “Everybody’s Somebody” thrill as a brass section punctuates the song’s soulful conclusion, making for a near-unforgettable moment of grandeur. Equally “A Precious Thing” builds from a tender piano ballad into full on torch song, Cummings scowling “it’s nothing I care about” as ripples of harp and bellowing timpani ring out. (That the song originally featured a screeching eagle tells you all you need to know about the dramatic flair it has.) Even those who find Cummings’ vocal acrobatics wearying would be hard pressed not to have goosebumps from the sheer musical force at play in moments like these.

Producer Jonathan Wilson certainly brings an impressive cast of musicians to the floor (harpist Mary Lattimore and string arranger/multi-instrumentalist Drew Erickson among them), but it feels like he’s conducting an orchestra that is often not quite in sync with its leading star, or knows how to control Cummings’ fire. With castanets clattering, “I’m Getting Married To The War” ambles for the first while before spreading into an incendiary psychedelic playground. Synths flash and tear holes of light into the picture, but after a minute or so it fades out, unsure what to do with all this new fangled energy it stumbled upon. Likewise with “Work Today (And Tomorrow)”, which boasts some syrupy strings that Radiohead wouldn’t throw out of bed, but after an intriguing self-referencial moment from Cummings (“Just wait, Grace / Just wait now”), the song peters out after an artificial-sounding string solo instead of building itself into new forms.

And as talented as the musicians here are, sometimes the effect feels strangely synthetic. What sounds like MIDI horns add a corny texture to opening track “Something Going ‘Round” while on the title track the bass and brass create a rubbery feel that doesn’t quite fit. As grand as the arrangements are here, oftentimes it feels like they are performed without musical direction, separated from the context and played like Cummings was never even in the room. Even intimate moments like the delicate “Without You” feel separate from the instruments and Cummings’ voice, any rustle to indicate she’s sat at the piano or with her guitar in hand polished away.

This is Cummings’ record though, despite her sounding like she’s sharing the space with the music. There are numerous examples of her talents to find here, from the versatile manner she finds expansive ways to express the syllables of the song title on “On and On” to the obsessive and feverish air she brings to “Ramona”. She can still brand a phrase in your head (see “You think you know me like a folk song / Or a book that you read once” on “Something Going ‘Round”) but as a whole, something doesn’t quite fit on Ramona.

Cummings knows how to command a stage, and this translates into her music too, seeming to summon transfixing siren-like powers when she unearths deep guttural heft. At its most impressive, Ramona is impossible not to stop and listen to. Storm Queen found a varied backdrop for her voice, honing in on bluesy folk but also unafraid to throw in the likes of an unexpected theremin solo – but here the new setting doesn’t deliver the same kind of thrill. As an actor, sometimes the costume doesn’t fit or the director doesn’t cast you in the right role, but for Cummings here, it’s still a worthwhile credit overall. Having range is important, and this new record is a different genre, a different kind of beast. It doesn’t always work as well as an album, but folks will still look back and remember the time Cummings spent everything, went all in, and became Ramona.