It’s funny that Macy Gray’s big hit a dozen years ago was “I Try,” because she sure doesn’t seem to be trying anymore.
Earlier this year Gray sort of participated in “Covered,” an album of remakes credited to Gray, though it appeared that she just showed up to casually cut the vocals and let producer Hal Willner do the work of reinventing songs by everyone from Eurythmics to Radiohead.
Willner is propping up Gray again on the new “Talking Book,” a song-for-song remake of Stevie Wonder’s smash album from 1972. Kudos to the producer for his deferential treatment of the material: Most songs are politely spruced up, tightened and sharpened without major disruption, though he takes a few chances that pay off, including a revamp of “Superstition” that overhauls the squeaky, familiar funk of the original into an atmospheric and torchy about-face.
But then there’s the unpredictable and unreliable Gray, whose distracted, grating rasp sometimes makes Courtney Love sound lucid by comparison. She’s disappointingly stilted against the warm vibe of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (which would have been a beautiful instrumental without her), and more often than not awkward elsewhere on “Talking Book,” alternating between jarring contrasts to some of the arrangements and irrelevant, secondary roles on others.
At least when she musters conviction, the songs work in a weird manner — her scratchy soul is a serviceable switch from Wonder’s silky voice on “Looking for Another Pure Love,” for instance, and she’s tenderly offbeat in the ballad “Blame It on the Sun.” Yet most of the time Gray is swimming against the current and creating an uncomfortable aura.
The release of Gray’s version of “Talking Book” coincides with the 40th anniversary of the release of the original, and a press statement quotes Gray as saying her album is, “my own personal gift to Stevie Wonder.”
Wonder what he did to her to deserve such a gift?
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of five)
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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