Long time SoulTrackers know that cover albums tend to elicit a response among our reviewers that can best be described as the literary equivalent of eye-rolling. The cynicism is often well-deserved because these projects often smack as the desperate move by an artist bereft of new ideas. What they do is cut an album featuring a bunch of hits from Motown, Stax or Philly International in hopes that the combination of a legendary musical canon and what is left of their fame will be enough to move a few hundred thousand units. They’re usually right on that count. The tunes and the artist have enough capital left to draw folks in who will plunk down their hard earned dollars to hear their old favorites.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with cover albums. The biggest shortcoming for these projects is the lack of imagination and risk taking in terms of the tunes that these artists choose to cover. Macy Gray has never had a problem with being an imaginative risk taker. So if Gray does a cover album of Stevie Wonder songs, she won’t cherry pick a bunch of hits. That just ain’t her way. Gray will do something like remake one of four albums from Stevie’s creative period – which is just what she does by releasing Talking Book, her cover of Wonder’s groundbreaking 1972 project.
The risk and the reward stems from the fact that “only” three of Talking Book’s 10 tracks ended up being hits. I think there’s an unwritten law requiring lite pop radio stations play “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” at least once a day. Football fans hear “Superstition” on that Coors commercial every NFL Thursday, Sunday and Monday and “You and I” still has legs as a wedding song. Talking Book’s other seven songs aren’t as well known, and that is the genius of Gray’s decision to cover the entire album.
That decision deprived Gray of the option of redoing 10 or 12 of Wonder’s greatest hits. I don’t know if fans would want to hear her use her raspy vocals to interpret “Ribbon in the Sky” and “Hey Love.” And to be sure, her tame and largely by the book versions of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “You and I” are the least satisfying efforts on Talking Book. Diving into the album cuts on Talking Book provides Gray with the opportunity to do what she does best, which is come up with arrangements that accentuate the strong elements of her vocal delivery.
Gray reimagines tracks such as “Maybe Your Baby,” “Tuesday Heartbreak,” “You Got it Bad Girl” and “Big Brother” as rock and funk tunes, which play to the strength of an artist's vocals. Gray is a rocker at heart who keeps one foot firmly rooted in the blues. That comes through on her cover of “Superstition,” a remake that kind of sounds like a mash up between Funkadelic and The Doors.
A successful covers album is not the same as a greatest hits album. As any sports fan can tell you, having a collection of all-star players does not insure that a team will win. We learned from last year’s Covered that Gray puts thought into what songs she will add to her cover tune roster, and she avoids the obvious choices. In taking on Talking Book, Gray inherited a great line up, and through her creativity and unique voice, she gives listeners a winning effort. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes
(SoulTrackers in London can see Macy on Dec 20 in concert)