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Macy Gray gets the big push

By Alex Pappademas

AUGUST 30, 1999:  I read Macy Gray's 31-page press kit, so you don't have to. The skinny on her fat stack of clips: in descriptions of Gray's voice and vibe, Billie Holiday is invoked 11 times and Tina Turner five, with Aretha and Janis and Nina Simone and James Brown all cropping up at least twice. It's standard multiple-choice rock coverage, the kind that positions a new diva in the canon by name-checking enough classic-soul artists to fill a Blues Brothers sequel. Except that few of the writers bylined in Macy's press actually draw those comparisons -- most of the time, they couch them in passive-voice disavowal. The New Yorker (which gave Macy six pages, minus Eames-chair ads) prefaced its influences rundown with "has been likened, variously, to..." The LA Times' three-star review went with "has evoked comparisons to such greats as..." And Time opted for "has some touting this new Los Angeles singer as the second coming of..." Noncommittal syntax like this has been described as a way of indirectly quoting from press releases without expressing an actual opinion.

Comparing a 29-year-old new jill on her second album (Atlantic dropped her without releasing her first record, reportedly a more rockin' affair -- Y Kant Macy Read?) with every diva shy of Faith Hill is like comparing Hall of Famers to college prospects, or pitchers to position players, or arena-football cornerbacks to ABA shooting guards, or something. There's no doubt Macy has a shot at the pantheon; her voice, which I'll get to in a second, really is a natural wonder. But anyone who says she's already the new Billie must be press-junket trippin'. Anyone who's saying "Move over, Aretha!" better think.

I really wanted On How Life Is (Epic) to be all it's cracked up to be, a built-to-spill beat match of R&B and VH-1 that would have its freaky way with me and steal my rent check on the way out. Sometimes Macy's voice seems capable of all that and more. It's a scratchy, squeaky, vibrant thing, a dust bunny's mating call, a tailpipe meow that sounds both innocent and soulfully well-traveled. Girlfriend has verve pipes. And okay, the reviewers pulling out their most hyperbolic comparisons aren't entirely smoking crack. Sometimes Gray does seem like a channeler, a ghost repository calling on the tics and flows of old-school divas. Their spirits don't seem to haunt her unduly, and sometimes I wish they would, but Macy's very un-Lauryn nonchalance in the face of Music History is still way refreshing.

The real draw on Life is hearing Macy work this yowl, footnotes be damned. Sex raps like "Caligula" are as goofy and kinky as the holographic-threesome cover art of Prince's Diamonds and Pearls, and they seem rooted in long-haul commitment. But I've been playing the hell out of two slow jams: "Still," where Macy kicks and scats against well-moisturized girl-group harmonies, and the totally breathtaking "I Try." The latter is a huge hit waiting to happen, or a future WB theme song -- maybe the frog could sing it. The verse of "I Try" is poignant phone sex; then, after Macy admits she's too lovestruck to keep her cool, the chorus soars. "I try to say goodbye and I choke/I try to walk away and I stumble/Though I try to hide it, it's clear/My world crumbles when you are not near," she sings, and the last line staggers up and down the scale, so it sounds as if she were really trying to run but her Friday Foster heels keep getting stuck in the sidewalk cracks. I mean, I pump Christina Aguilera's jam on the regular the way anyone who loves life should, but what does a former Mouseketeer know about that kind of sly formalism? What's she got to choke on? Sour Patch Kids?

The issue isn't talent or content but setting. Producer Andrew Slater, who's also Macy's manager, raised Fiona Apple and the Wallflowers from mere seeds. And though he did hit Fiona off with beats that brought the mutha-cursin' prep-school flava, he's all wrong for this project. (Drawbacks: specializes in ahistorical post-grunge-boho-rootsism; figures there's no song so good that a Rami Jaffee organ solo can't make it better.) I'm guessing it was ex-LA hip-hop scenester Macy who recruited Freestyle Fellowship's DJ Kiilu and occasional Black Eyed Peas guitarist Miles Tackett. And the presence of card-carrying '70s funktionaries helps -- trumpeter Michael Harris has played for Earth Wind & Fire, the Emotions, the Whispers, and the Gap Band, and ax man Dwayne "Blackbird" McKnight once got knee deep on Funkadelic's Uncle Jam Wants You.

But McKnight electrically spanks no P-Funk war babies here, and I had to look at the CD booklet to figure out whether I was hearing him or one of Gray's other guitarists, like Arrik Marshall, who temped with the post-Frusciante/pre-Navarro Chili Peppers for about a day and a half. Most of the other players on the album are prototypical West Coast session dudes who would probably have rolled with Jackson Browne back in the day. Drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Greg Richling are customary ingredients in Slater's house blend -- they've both recorded with Apple and the Wallflowers. So has multi-instrumentalist Jon "Dr. Optigan" Brion, who (having appeared on more adult-alternative albums than the UPC code, backing Aimee Mann, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Rufus Wainwright) may be VH-1's unofficial house band. The breakdown on Macy's "A Moment to Myself," where a bleep-emitting flying saucer buzzes the studio while the back-up singers doo-doo-dooplicate the bridge harmonies from Beck's "Where It's At," seems to have Brion's human-jukebox signature all over it. (And Beck's dad, David Campbell, arranged the strings on "Still.")

I'm not even counting Patrick Warren, who's worked that most indispensable of instruments, the Chamberlin, for everyone from John Doe to Hootie, or percussionist Lenny Castro, whose All-Music Guide résumé (Toto! George Benson! Randy Newman! Boz Scaggs!) reads like the tracklisting from a K-Tel mellow-'70s-gold compilation.

Lenny excluded, these are the guys who resurfaced the middle of the '90s-rock road. They rent by the month at the under-new-management Hotel California. And as musicians, they're most deft, but far from fly enough for the task at hand. The compositions themselves are funk-and-jazz-schooled record-collection rock, through which Macy's eccentricity flows freely, but the band have been beat with the Tuesday-night-music club. Macy sings like a woman not averse to pouring Guinness on her Cocoa Puffs; her band probably think twice about drinking milk out of the carton. Macy rocks a platinum-plush fur in her album-cover photos; her band's grooves are zipped up in Old Navy tech vests. Her grand funk writes checks the supporting players lack sufficient ID to cash.

"Do Something," Life's breakout single, makes a stoned soul picnic out of Outkast's "Git Up, Git Out" (from their 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik). The original was sadder and grittier, a lovingly detailed Atlanta-style, dirty-South Mean Streets recounted by guys whose neighborhood had aged them prematurely. Craig Love's guitar entwined moss and power lines, Big Boi compared himself to Rosemary's Baby, Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo rapped about cleaning toilets, and producers Organized Noize laid down bass lines in spiral carpets -- and you could just about smell the White Owls burning. The original "Git Up" plays in the background at the beginning of "Do Something," just another oldie bumping from a passing Sedan De Ville. Macy's de facto cover is brighter, all wishing wells and bubble baths and "living well down on Easy Street." But then a line like "Lost in some ol' maze" catches in the fuzz in her throat and you can feel the ATLiens nodding empathetically behind the beat.

Too bad Mark Romanek's gorgeous-yet-meaningless video for "Do Something" utterly sleeps on that poignancy. I mean, I love how Macy flaunts the most mannish jawline on the Isle of MTV, but where exactly does this clip take place? Some models-only subdivision of the commune from Todd Haynes's Safe? The set of a British Airways commercial? Hypoallergenic Ladyland? In retrospect, maybe they should have led with the hoky, exuberant, way more videogenic Life cut "I've Committed Murder," on which former USC screenwriting student Macy plays a woman who robs and kills her boyfriend's boss after the "mean ol' bitch" fires him. Super cool, she tells her man, "See, baby, there was this struggle... As a result of our struggle... we don't have to struggle no more," Then -- boom! -- they're on the 3:05 to Jamaica. As song ends, they're married, the guy's still "working hard to make his dreams come true," and Macy's chuckling, "One thing I've learned through all of this is/Having money sure is nice." It's as if Quentin Tarantino, after cueing up Chuck Berry's teenage-weddin' song "You Never Can Tell" for the twist scene in Pulp Fiction, decided to script its TV-MA prequel. Here's hoping Macy herself can break out of the Triple A frame with minimal bloodshed -- if she starts making records as unruly as that voice, we could really have something.


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