I feel a certain amount of dread whenever I learn that an artist has dropped an album of cover songs. I think y’all know why. Cover albums usually fall into a couple of categories. There is the Great American Songbook cover albums in which a singer – usually an aging rocker or R&B singer looking to connect with a more mature audience – has a crack at the canon of Mercer, Gershwin, Porter and Ellington. Then, there is the classic rock or soul cover albums in which the artist – usually a pop or R&B veteran or a youngster with something to prove – interprets 1960s and 1970s popular music. There, of course, are other songs that get covered now and then, but the vast majority of remakes are from one of these two camps, and there a reason for that: these are great songs, and the record executives who think these things up know that people will at give at least one listen to an album featuring “Someone to Watch Over Me” or “The Tracks of My Tears.”
However, we may be reaching the saturation point with these types of cover projects. Look, there are at least 3,000 cover versions of “Yesterday.” Do we really need a 3,001st version? The tendency of songs to be ‘done to death’ largely explains the trepidation I feel whenever I receive an album filled with covers. For every rule there is going to be an exception, and it should not come as a surprise that an album of covers done by Macy Gray would be – well – different.
So when I learned that Gray would be releasing Covered, her take on her favorite tunes of the last three decades, a feeling of anticipation replaced the trepidation that I normally feel. Gray definitely didn’t walk down the beaten path on Covered. Instead, Gray opts to turn her creative energies to alternative rock songs like Radiohead’s “Creep,” metal jams such as “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica, college rock tunes like “Smoke Two Joints” by The Toyes and more contemporary fare such a Colbie Calliet’s “Bubbly” and My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers.”
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Macy Gray project without a healthy dose of humor and self-awareness. Covered includes several skits and spoken word pieces featuring guests such as J.B. Smoove, Nicole Schezinger and MC Lyte. The skits, in my opinion, work much better than the poems, which don’t feature Gray’s voice at all. A piece such as “The Power of Love” might be good, but a listener might wonder why Gray put it on Covered. The skits featuring J.B. Smoove, Scherzinger and MC Lyte are hilarious because they all play on how Gray’s not quite mainstream style prevents her from being a bigger star.
Gray’s creativity is on full display on a track like “Teenagers.” My Chemical Romance wrote this song as a rage against the hypocritical and oppressive world created by adults. Now, Gray is a parent of three teenagers and she has enough sense to know that she can’t sing that song. So Gray repurposes “Teenagers” by singing it from the parent’s point of view. In Gray’s version, her teenager’s lies, and rebellious attitudes, sense of entitlement and risky behavior turn parenthood into a nightmare. I like the My Chemical Romance version, but as the parent of three teenagers, I was really feeling Gray’s remake.
Gray gives “Smoke Two Joints” by The Toyes a dancehall feel, while her version of “Nothing Else Matters” has a blues/rock feel. Gray’s inclusion of this tune shows that the raspy voiced one is an artist who is willing to elevate the one unappreciated reason for doing a cover album to a higher status. Yes, musicians definitely want to make money giving fans the songs they love. However, another important reason for covering a song is to introduce a great song made by an artist in different genres to an entirely different fan base. “Nothing Else Matters” is a great song, but how many people who are not fans of heavy metal would bother diving into the Metallica canon. And...
That’s the great thing about Covered. Macy Gray flips the script on the tired covers album and, instead of cashing in on familiar classics, she uses her release as a means to open musical ears to great music that wouldn’t otherwise be discovered. Now, thanks to Gray, her mostly R&B fans will have new reasons to consider the songbooks of disparate – and decidedly non-R&B -- acts like Metallica and My Chemical Romance in a whole new way. And that’s a good thing. Recommended
By Howard Dukes