Artist: Macy Gray
Release date: Out Now
Price: $8.99 / £9.99
Produced by: Macy Gray and Hal Wilner
Composed by: Karen O, James Hetfield, Annie Lennox, et al.
Music and Vocals by: Macy Gray, Idris Elba, DJ Drez, et al.
Tags: Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Rock
How does a successful musical artist sell even more albums? She releases a collection of covers. Macy Gray gathers an army of musical talent to record some of the most popular songs from across many genres. Macy and friends cover heavy metal, indie rock, and blue-eyed soul with Gray’s signature R&B style.
Perhaps the greatest boon to becoming a successful recording artist is the ability to gather your friends and respected colleagues to perform some of the greatest songs in recent history. Macy Gray, whose voice reminds one of a later era Billie Holiday, lends her rhythm & blues sentimentality to a hit list spanning two decades of popular music.
Her talent pool boasts an impressive number of musicians and featured artists. We find Marina Bambino, Idris Elba (yes, that Idris Elba), and Cathy Fink. Covered features string arrangements, horn sections, and a choir. An assortment of composers and engineers aid Macy in her cause. The result is nothing if not phenomenal.
Let’s get into the album proper. Looking at the track list you see few tracks that you might expect. Macy pleases fans that may also like Willie Nelson, Bob Marley, and Kevin Smith with a cover of The Toyes’ Smoke 2 Joints. She also covers Kanye West’s Love Lockdown complete with an old school DJ on the turntables.
The rest of the album pulls from well outside Macy Gray’s wheelhouse. The album opens with Eurythmics’ Here Comes the Rain Again. Now while it doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch for an R&B singer to cover the blue-eyed soul of Annie Lennox, Macy’s efforts are different enough to be remarkable while being surprisingly similar. Most surprising is the inclusion of synth pads that honor the sleek 80s sound of the original track. Macy’s version strips it down to bare essentials. She sings a much slower version against a minimal accompaniment that proves both eerie and moving. A great start.
Eurythmics is not the only alternative band to receive Macy’s treatment. More electronic elements are drawn into a cover of Radiohead’s anthem, Creep. While many artists cover this track to hit that one famous note (you know the one), Macy Gray concerns herself with the spirit of the song, a spirit of quiet desperation. This is not to say her voice doesn’t rise to the challenge. Quite the contrary. She tackles the song in its entirety, pouring her hear into the soulful refrains. Oddly supporting her interpretation is a pipe organ, adding a truly gothic quality to the piece. Otherwise the instrumentation is distorted, particularly in the rhythm section, which contributes to the overall oppressive sensation.
It’s not all tears when you hear Macy Gray tackle emo superstars, My Chemical Romance. The cabaret style Teenagers lends itself to a tongue in cheek performance. The song, for those not familiar, takes a rather ironic position on youth culture. An actual rock band remarks on how teenagers are frightening. The tavern style piano and accompanying drum kit partner with Macy’s vocals for a song that is quite simply fun. Macy is allowed to bring forth the quirky personality for which she had been cast in films and video games.
While on the topic of songs on the Rock Band play list we might as well talk about Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Here Macy’s vocals are distorted slightly to sound as if they’re broadcast from an FM radio. Macy’s flirty performance is endearing as she sings with the alternately fast and slow music track. Lady back up singers fill in the gaps. Giving her the most indie credit, and perhaps the best track on the album, is her cover of Sail by Awolnation. This is one of those instances when a musical artist really claims another musician’s track as her own. It compares with Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U or HIM’s cover of Chris Isaac’s Wicked Game. Macy sings the hell out of this song. The swelling orchestration provides enough of a gust to allow her voice soar.
Before you start to think Macy has shackled herself to songs off the latest Buzz compilation, she tries her vocal chords with Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters. Upon first listen one is taken to an alternate universe where an early James Bond film opens to this smooth jazz version of a heavy metal ballad. Jazz organ, a string section, and even a tambourine combine for a torch song of epic proportions. Even the iconic guitar solo is presented in a blues/rock style. This alone is worth the price of the album.
Remember Idris Elba? The actor/musician joins Macy in a mellow rendition of Colbie Caillat’s Bubbly for a lovely duet. The song is bittersweet and the pair treat it with the appropriate emotion and respect. For the hipsters out there Macy embraces the Grammy Award winning music of Arcade Fire with Wake Up. The traditional percussion instruments and mandolin marry well with Macy Gray’s signature vocal style. This is definitely a good track for a twilight drive.
At intervals Macy records some short comedic tracks Big Willie Style as if hanging a lantern on the obvious commercial ploy of selling more albums with a cover album. It’s a ploy that works. While some cover albums such as Emotive by A Perfect Circle have a clear purpose to them (the album is a collection of protest songs A Perfect Circle covered around the invasion of Iraq) others, like Covered, are more a means of reaching people that might not otherwise buy an album. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Rick Springfield, and others have made the same ploy. Yet, these little comedic sketches poke fun at the whole phenomenon of selling out. A fellow recording artist tells her she needs to perform with a huge sword to make her fans too nervous to leave. Another says she should change her style entirely to sound more like Alanis Morissette. Finally, during an interview with MC Lyte, Macy keeps interrupting by requesting more and more hyperbolic descriptions of her talent.
All in all Covered presents a good gateway album into Macy Gray’s greater catalog as well as a companion piece for current fans. The songs covered offer a good variety and each provides Macy an opportunity to try something a bit different.