[2 April 2012]
Macy Gray’s Covered distinguishes itself from so many other (largely pointless) cover albums because her musical tastes are highly eclectic and she’s not taking herself too seriously here. Most important, though, is that Gray’s interpretations are fearless and subversive – and brave in their execution. It’s the latter that really counts. She’s a great interpreter; whether covering the Sublimes or Metallica or Kanye West, she knows how to find and retain the essence of the original song and then craft a new way of experiencing it so that the song, in effect, becomes Gray’s version, a new version, which is more than a simple cover. (Think: Cat Power’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.)
We listen to the Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again” and, without drums in Gray’s take, experience a deeply personal kind of spectral and haunted longing that the original does not possess. Whether we care for the original or not, we’re almost bound to like and admire Gray’s take on it, and so the original becomes something new and newly relevant. That is what makes or unmakes great covers (and there aren’t many, either): the ability to retain the essence of the original while making the song seem new at the same time. Johnny Cash’s cover of NIN’s “Hurt” is the perfect thievery; it now belongs to Cash and not to Trent Reznor. No one would argue that Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” is better than Dylan’s original, especially since Dylan himself said as much. That Gray has in such a way transformed so many songs on Covered is a wonder in itself.
Not everything works to this effect on Covered. The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” is mostly flat and void of imagination. It’s the least successful cover on the album, followed by Gray’s take on My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers”, whose lyrics she had to rework “cuz I ain’t no teenager,” she writes in the liner notes. Even so, her version of the song is catchy and not without its small pleasures. Throughout Covered, various skits are interjected among the songs and these have to do, in one way or another, with how Gray can or should become more popular, with how she might become known for more than just her signature song, “I Try”. Gray clearly has a sense of humour and just as clearly enjoys the intra-album give and take with MC Lyte, Nicole Scherzinger (Pussycat Dolls), and J.B Smoove.
But of course it’s the music here that matters, and Gray pulls most everything off resoundingly. Taking up Colbie Caillat’s “Bubbly”, Gray, along with Idris Elba (who seems to be everywhere these days), transforms the song from, in Gray’s words, “a happy bubbly beach song into a dark spooky duet.” And she’s right. Gray takes Radiohead’s “Creep” and turns it into a funereal rumination on the inaccessibility of desire and bewildered self-loathing. “Smoke Two Joints” (Sublime version) is more determinedly joyous and dance-oriented than the original. On Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”, Gray loses the original’s self-regard while retaining and even deepening its sonic wash of guitar and organ. And finally there’s Gray’s voice, a raspy wonder of an instrument. Put all together, Macy Gray’s Covered is a loosely brilliant piece of work.