Macy Gray always wanted to be heard, but preferably through other people's voices. The 29-year-old Ohio native was born with a decidedly unusual voice--high- pitched, raspy, easy fodder for schoolmates' taunts right through high school. Little wonder she was silent all those years.
Gray eventually moved to Los Angeles to enroll in the screenwriting program at the University of Southern California Film School, but soon found herself gravitating to Hollywood's We Ours coffee shop, site of informal early-morning jams and songwriting sessions. And that's where folks finally began to appreciate Gray's intriguing voice for its distinction, not its limitations.
As Sheryl Crow did with the Tuesday Night Music Club years before, Gray began working with a small circle of friends. They included programmer Darryl Swann, keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna and DJ Kiilu. The results of that collaboration are unveiled in "On How Life Is" (Epic), a distinguished debut that may burden Gray with more hype than she really needs this early in her career.
She's already being compared to Lauryn Hill, despite the fact that Gray is a purely old-fashioned soul singer, not a hip-hop fusionist, and that her decidedly personal material lacks the social and political underpinnings of Hill's. There's also an impressive list of "she-sounds-like" suspects: Tina Turner, Al Green, Nina Simone, latter-day Billie Holiday, Rod Stewart, Kim Carnes and lesser lights like Carleen Anderson and Karen Dalton.
Somewhere in there lies Macy Gray, clearly on a journey to self-discovery. Or as she puts it in "A Moment to Myself, "Deep in the struggle I have found the beauty of me/ God is watchin' and the devil finally let me be/ Here in this moment to myself/ I'm gonna vibe with no one else/ There is a conversation I need to have with me."
Gray is not strictly a monologuist. She benefits from smart R&B-meets-pop-rock production by Andrew Slater (Fiona Apple, Wallflowers) and empathetic support from such guests as guitarist Arrik Marshall (once a Red Hot Chili Pepper), guitarist and keyboard player Jon Brion (Apple) and drummer Matt Chamberlain. What Slater has come up with is a '90s-style sheen on vintage soul. For instance, the impassioned "I Try" is the kind of yearning, simmer-to-a-boil ballad of emotional dependence Tina Turner might have embraced in her own '80s transformation. In it, Gray reluctantly confesses, "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."
On this and several other songs, Gray incorporates languorous phrasing reminiscent of Billie Holiday as she explores the nuances of troubled romance. Another example is the somber "Still," in which Gray displays dangerous ambivalence as to whether her partner is lover or tormentor. "We are going down/ Cuz you're always getting high/ And your crumbs of lovin'/ No longer get me by," Gray sings dolefully before admitting, "I still melt down like a candle burning every time we touch/ Say what you will/ He does me wrong and I should be gone/ And I still be lovin' you baby and it's much too much . . ."
Fortunately, Gray is no sob sister. "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak" is a joyful, sensual celebration fueled by Funkadelic guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight. There's the sexual jubilance of "Caligula," whose mojo rises on a major "Come Together"-style vamp. There's also the indignant plaint "Why Didn't You Call Me," and "Do Something," in which Gray encourages drug-dazed folks (including herself) to "Get up, get out and do something/ Don't let the days of your life pass you by . . . how will you make it if you never even try." The latter song's slinky summertime vibe is built on discreet samples from Outkast's "Git Up, Git Out" and Nice & Smooth's "Funky for You," but most of the album is refreshingly sample-free.
One exception is "I've Committed Murder," which samples Eddie Harris's "Live Right Now" and, toward the end, lightly interpolates the "Theme From 'Love Story.' " It's a curious narrative account of a robbery and murder in which the protagonists seem to get away guilt-free and absent moral consequence ("One thing I've learned from all of this is/ Having money sure is nice . . . As far as regrets I don't have any/ Would you?")
It's not that Gray is beyond judgment, however. Two of the album's most interesting tracks have clear spiritual underpinnings. On "I Can't Wait to Meetchu," Gray makes like Al Green in his horn-driven Hi Records heyday. "I tried to live without you/ What a misery it turned out to be," she sings, subsequently slipping into salvation mode: "Love the life I'm livin' though I'm looking forward to the day I die/ Oh my Lord, I can't wait to meetchu." There's a similar message in "The Letter," which, despite its sunnier lilt, has the markings of a suicide note--or a prayer for transcendence. Gray, once again resorting to Greenlike fervor, explains, "When I get ready I up and fly/ And I can't remember none of the things that I want to forget/ It's the best satisfaction no less . . . It's obvious this is not the place I'm supposed to be/ What I'm lookin' for is not here on Earth."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)
Another impressive newcomer is Grenique, a native of Landover, who recently released her debut, "Black Butterfly" (Motown). It, too, speaks about self-discovery. In the slow, hypnotic groove of "Love Within," the 23-year-old singer moves from soft-spun balladry to spoken-word passion as she expresses regret over past behaviors and describes gaining control over her life and developing self-respect and self-awareness: "I never knew love could be so sweet."
Grenique (her surname is Harper) is the latest find by producer and Motown chief Kedar Massenburg, whose neo-soul discoveries include D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. There's a bit of Badu's earth mother vibe here, as well as Des'ree's supple folk-funk and quiet storm connections to such singers as Phyllis Hyman, Dianne Reeves and N'Dea Davenport. There a comforting power to Grenique's lush, lustrous alto as well as an emotional wisdom that belies her relative youth.
If some songs feel as if they've come from a recently discovered '70s classic, it's because they have, notably a sumptuous remake of Heatwave's 1978 standard "The Star of a Story." Grenique recasts it slightly so that what was a love song becomes a homage to spiritual ancestors ("Come to me/ Let me be/ Part of all the love you are"). And though the title track is built along a spare, choppy guitar rhythm reminiscent of Tracy Chapman, it delivers an old-fashioned message of unconditional love: "No matter how the storms rage/ We're gonna make it through."
Grenique wrote seven of the 10 songs on "Black Butterfly," and, like Gray's, they address everyday battles of the heart. Underscored by sorrowful muted trumpet, "Should I" examines Grenique's own fight-or-flight scenario as she finds herself trapped in a fading relationship with a shiftless lover. "He claims he's so deprived/ Won't even pick up the classifieds," she complains. In "Let Go," the singer has ended a bad relationship and moved on, something her former lover seems unable to do. It's a turnaround she clearly enjoys, as evidenced in lines like "The joke's on you/ There's no revolving door!"
Sometimes there is joy--as on the singsong devotional "Anything"--and sometimes there is pain, as in "You Say," which addresses the dire consequences of a romantic triangle, and in the self-evident "Trials and Tribulations." The only weak song on the album is its most familiar one, the spry dance floor anthem "Disco," which first appeared on the multi-platinum "Rush Hour."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)