Okay. As concepts go, this one is unusual to say the least. While it’s common for musicians to record songs they love that are written by other musicians, I’ve never heard of a singer re-releasing another singer’s entire record. Imagine the Decemberists recording their own version of Neil Young’s On the Beach, or Rage Against the Machine giving their own spin on Led Zeppelin II. Could it work? Maybe. Is it a slam-dunk? Hardly.
That, in a nutshell, describes Macy Gray’s version of Talking Book, Stevie Wonder’s seminal 1972 album and the one that contains a couple of songs that even non-Stevie fans will recognize (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, “Superstition”). Gray made a splash with her first three albums, particularly 1999’s On How Life Is, but she has been struggling in recent years, ever since the release of the drastically wretched Big in 2007. Maybe it’s natural that she turned to a sure-fire hit-maker (and certified musical genius) like Wonder for inspiration.
The problem, of course, is that by singing Stevie Wonder songs, Gray sets herself up to be compared with Stevie Wonder. Sometimes this works out just fine, as on “Maybe Your Baby”, the best song in this set, a thumping, funky stomper that puts Gray’s patented Billie-Holiday-meets-Daffy-Duck squawk to effective use. The original had an irresistible, spiky groove of its own, but Gray’s version carries a pile-driving force and, for a the duration of its four and a half minutes, the listener might almost believe that this newer version can hold its own against the original—notwithstanding its much shorter running time.
That’s as good as it gets, though. Elsewhere, Gray reveals herself to be an uninspired interpreter, or even a miscalculating one. Her rendition of “Superstition” is certainly unique, and she gets props for trying to make the song her own, but her meandering, downtempo caterwaul is by turns bewildering and annoying, and manages to suck much of the funky life out of the tune. This is no easy trick.
Some of these versions just seem unnecessary, more a product of the let’s-cover-the-whole-album concept rather than songs that anyone was dying to re-record. “Tuesday Heartbreak” and “Blame It on the Sun” both just kind of go through the motions, while “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is so faithful in its mimicry to the original’s arrangement and approach that listeners might reasonably wonder why Gray bothered to record it.
Not all the news is bad. With “You’ve Got it Bad Girl” Gray beefs up the instrumentation a bit, introducing some fuzzed-out synthesizers to lend muscle to Wonder’s overly smooth orchestration. Closing track “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” is simply lovely, with Gray’s voice carrying layers of yearning, hope and heartbreak all at once.
That, of course, is her secret weapon—her voice—and its presence defines this album (as well as all her others). Not to everyone’s taste, that voice careens through the set, often providing its own harmonies, always on pitch but never providing the kind of smooth-edged sounds so prevalent in the original album. Ultimately, that voice will provide the deciding factor in whether a listener is satisfied by this record. Fans of Gray may well find enough in these tunes to engage and even move them. Fans of Stevie Wonder, however, are less likely to be convinced.