Macy Gray returns with her first album in four years, very little of which is bad, but very little of which is exciting. Clearly the big hitters have been dragooned in an effort to get Gray back in the charts, and steer her sound back from the funk and old soul influences on her second and third albums towards a more contemporary, radio-friendly vibe.
Released on the Black Eyed Peas‘ will.i.am’s label for Geffen, wil’ takes on production duties for most of the tracks, Fergie joins Gray for vocals on the (largely forgettable) Glad You’re Here, and hippest of hip guest star is Justin Timberlake who co-writes and co-produces two tracks. Oh, and Natalie Cole is the guest on the current single, the musically uplifting Finally Made Me Happy, all about how great it is to have ditched the boyfriend, which features the same pauses and rising backing track which, along with Gray’s unique vocal stylings, made I Try so memorable.
It’s seven years since she was pitch forked to our attention by I Try, and in the interim she’s done precious little that any but hardened fans will remember. Big tries to bolt the jerky rhythmicness and dense arrangement of I Try onto popular R’n’B, but the result is frequently blowsy rather than rich, and there’s precious little ‘gravel’ in her voice these days – all the rough edges have been sanded down to produce what I imagine was supposed to be an easy listening sound but in fact sounds scratchy and, to my ears, annoying.You have to ask yourself, isn’t the dramatic oddness of her voice precisely what makes her special, so why suppress it?
It’s a clear case of ‘too many cooks’ which produces an album that lacks vision and unity. It’s a little unfair to pick out Treat Me Like Your Money, an unholy hodge-podge that drags in bits of It’s Like That and You Spin Me Round, which lists 14 writers, but the majority of the tracks have at least half a dozen authors.
Timberlake’s contribution pulls back on the kitchen sink approach to arrangement, but songs like Get Out are minor high spots and there is some cringe-worthy material here too, including Ghetto Love. She may be quirky, she may be eccentric, but ghetto she ain’t and lines like “I gotta lover who is ghetto for real / Take me to movies and he’s carrying steel” simply don’t convince.
Gray makes the most of the more dramatic lyrics – this is not an album for hunny-bunnies happily in love, that’s for sure, with its parade of songs about failed relationships, the best of which is Strange Behaviour – but you’re left feeling like you’re listening the audio equivalent of a normally classy mum dressing up in her daughter’s clothing. Macy Gray is good enough for us to expect more.