Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Make 'Em Nervous: Macy Gray Reveals "Covered"

When Macy Gray appeared in the popular music sphere, it was at a time when black music was undergoing another of its many changes.

Neo-soul had started to burn in 1999 when Macy Gray's debut On How Life Is connected to a larger audience (read: white). Gray's amoeba-like soul absorbed a range of styles without losing her R&B center. She had the attention of pop and urban listeners.

Her abilities set her immediately apart from her female peers Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, and Jill Scott (who dropped her first LP in 1999). Such traits possessed in abundance proved to be Gray's undoing in the sense that it painted a picture of her as a novelty. Macy Gray as an artist couldn't be any farther from that distortion. It didn't stop her from being boxed by the mainstream, limiting her commercial clout. Undaunted and starting in 2001 with her second, and wild, album The id, Gray continued onward to new musical peaks: The Trouble With Being Myself (2003), BIG (2007), and The Sellout (2010).

All of those records destroyed any notion of "neo-soul" limitation, Gray walked on as a special songwriter, voice, and presence. Here we are in 2012 and have been greeted with Macy Gray's sixth album Covered. As the title implies, it is a covers project. Despite the sneers and sighs of annoyance, covers have been around as long as the popular music empire started erecting its spires in the '40's and '50's. Big business as it is today, covers are often a blow to an artist. The songs are too obvious, the production too sanitized, and often a stop gap for a lack of creative flow. Yet, cover projects often announce that an artist has arrived at a specific plateau in their career. They've earned the right to pay homage to their heroes, so to speak.

Behind the Scenes of Covered

How did Macy Gray avoid the "covers trap" and inherit a time honored tradition? Easy (!), she followed her gut as a listener and shared her musical love with her audience. The cast of characters on Covered include: "Here Comes the Rain Again" (Eurythmics), "Creep" (Radiohead), "Smoke Two Joints" (The Toyes & Sublime), "Teenagers" (My Chemical Romance), "Nothing Else Matters" (Metallica), "Sail" (Awolnation), "Maps" (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), "Lovelockdown/Buck" (Kanye West & Nina Simone), "Bubbly" (Colbie Caillet), and "Wake Up" (Arcade Fire)".

The collection of artists and songs suggest that Covered is not a garden variety of common picks like "Fly Me to the Moon" or "My Cherie Amour." Bart Howard and Stevie Wonder this ain't. No stranger to handling material not her own, Gray has tackled classics by Aerosmith ("Walk This Way") and Prince ("Girls & Boys") deftly. Here on Covered, Gray paired with producer Hal Wilner and got down to formulating the sound of the album.

Said sounds are cool, fun, but pensive seeing Gray's voice still retaining its scratchy veneer. As heard on her previously mentioned albums, Gray's voice has a colorful span for her to play in. The double opener of "Here Comes the Rain Again" and "Creep," presented as electro-dirges, has Gray sketching in muted restraint, but with an obvious yearning. In other areas, Gray turns "Wake Up" into a sunny, but experienced tale of life, love, and pain, and steps into "Maps" and "Teenagers" with gusto. The latter is lyrically re-tweaked and comes from the side of a mother versus the teenagers, her humor comes through her singing style effortlessly.

Elsewhere, Gray's friendly (romantic?) duet on "Bubbly" with actor Idris Elba is clever, but it's her medley mash-up of "Lovelockdown/Buck" that is remarkable. Placing West's words over Simone's '67 jazz arrangement, the swirls of hip-hop and contemporary soul make for a posh treat. Here, Gray's confidence in her coffee colored tone, down to her phrasing and inflection, shows her creating a brand new song out of two separate ones.

Additional praise falls to the clutch of interludes that space out the LP. Three traditional spoken-word breaks ("La, La, La (Teaching the Kids)," "The Power of Love," and "Mel Rap") are included, two featuring Gray's own teenagers. As nice as those are, the three remaining interludes with comedian J.B. Smoove ("You Want Them Nervous"), Nicole Scherzinger ("I Try Is Cool and All, But..."), and M.C. Lyte ("Really?") are hilarious plays on Gray's own fame and lack of accessibility.

Particularly, J.B. Smoove's statement that people need to be scared of Macy (he suggests using a sword to keep her audience in check whilst performing).

 Scherzinger's suggestions that Gray change her vocal styles to that of Britney Spears, Alanis Morissette, and Shakira (complete with imitations) is belly ache inducing, as is her play-feud with MC Lyte. Gray's new album completes her cycle and moves her music forward. She remains one of, if not, the leading lady removed from the neo-soul cache, as a bonafide progressive R&B superstar. Five out of five stars.-QH

 [Editor's Note: Covered is available now, current news can be located at Macy Gray Official.-QH]

1 comment:

romy3 said...

Great review of a wonderful record and just about the only positive one I've seen. What the hell is wrong with people? One things for sure - there's nothing wrong with Macy G on this masterclass in 'cover' albums.