First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2007, Volume 14, #5
Written by John Metzger
Thu May 10, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Macy Gray named her latest set Big for a reason. Ever since she broke into the spotlight with Try, the first single from her stellar debut On High Life Is, she has struggled to find a way of repeating her success. The Id was a solid follow-up, but it failed to garner the same levels of attention, praise, and, most important, sales figures. The Trouble with Being Myself faltered even more. Subsequently, she was dropped by Epic Records and left without a home, at least until will.i.am came to her rescue.
Big, Gray’s first outing to be issued by Geffen, is designed to return her to the limelight, but unfortunately, the approach she took to recording the affair is completely wrong. Under the guidance of hit-chasers will.i.am, Ron Fair, and Justin Timberlake, Gray opted to wrap her material inside contemporary arrangements, which inevitably push the organic essence of her early work to the side. Almost all of the songs on Big were groomed for placement within the play lists of modern pop and R&B radio stations. Not surprisingly, the results are, at best, mixed.
Most problematic about Big is its ridiculously oversized production. The strings, the beats, the guest stars — they all add up to providing so much glamour and glitz that the outing inevitably feels as if it has been polished into submission. Granted, Gray desperately needed to bring a fresh perspective to her work because, aside from her commercial shortcomings, her songs were beginning to feel redundant. Replacing her individualistic quirkiness with generic arrangements and gimmicks, however, is not the answer.
Fortunately, Gray has such a dominating personality that, despite the cluttered distractions, she is able to shine. As always, she reveals her twisted tales in a playful fashion, using, for example, an ambience that was nicked from Elvin Bishop’s Fooled Around and Fell in Love to introduce Finally Made Me Happy, a tune about how grateful she is that her man walked out the door. Elsewhere, she romanticizes gangsta life (Ghetto Love), kills her lover — before he can kill her — for insurance money (Strange Behavior), and mocks guys who consider their girlfriends to be possessions (Treat Me Like Your Money). She also tucks a tribute to James Brown into Get Out’s funk break, while the first four tracks on the set ambitiously roll together to form a suite of songs about the unfortunate but necessary shattering of a family. Delivered in her smokily weathered but highly emotive voice, the material on Big gradually shakes off the crispness of its production to reveal that the Macy Gray of old still exists. If she isn’t careful, however, she likely will suffocate at the hands of the mainstream-driven, commercial-minded mediocrity in which her new album was adorned.
Big is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box