Rock-and-soul diva Macy Gray is getting gold-rush treatment from her record company. Before "On How Life Is" was even in stores, she'd already appeared on "Late Night With David Letterman," had a trendy video out and been featured in the New Yorker. And last week, she played live for the celebrity cast of invitees at Tina Brown's Talk magazine party at the Statue of Liberty. Too bad she's just another new soul pretender.
Gray is supposedly kin to other allegedly maverick black artists like Erykah Badu and Eagle Eye Cherry, but ultimately she, like the others, is really just a nappy haircut with a savvy stylist and an old-school vinyl collection that would make Jamiroquai's Jason Kay salivate.
Gray's debut is really about the continued struggle of (largely) post-desegregation black musicians following a double-conscious muse in pursuit of critical and commercial regard. The pop scene is currently experiencing a flood of artists pursuing similar themes, some compelling (Cree Summer, Chocolate Genius), others less so (Cherry, Badu). But even with Living Colour's arena-rock precedent, the notion of blacks pursuing rock 'n' roll careers or delving into white genres in the '90s remains more or less verboten. That puts Macy Gray and her fellow alt-soul pioneers in a commercial world where even problematic entities like Lenny Kravitz look like grand old daddies.
As with many contemporary (alternative) cultural mulatto artists, in this release Gray has the tendency to skimp on the rock-and-soul structures in favor of computerized pap that nods mostly to electronica. The guitars of Red Hot Chili Pepper alum Arik Marshall and P-Funkster Blackbird McKnight -- featured on half the record -- are barely discernable. So far, Gray is smug about the unclassifiable nature of her music, but if it ain't hambone, what is it?
"On How Life Is" kicks off with a spirited, funky tribute to post-"Stand!"-era Sly Stone. The sound conveys the appropriate soupgon of murky funk: muddy bass, percussive guitar, elastic drums and stacked gospel-inflected harmonies; the only thing missing is the horns. But in many ways, the disc devolves from that point. "Do Something," Gray's first single, is ultimately lifeless, full of rote trip-hop flourishes, a canned stew of samples, drum programs and noodly synth washes. And wow track "I've Committed Murder" is a bit too infatuated with itself: Ageist/sexist slurs ("The owner is this mean ole bitch"), dark cha-cha-cha stylings and overused spooky chamberlain effects undermine the showily provocative title and lyrics. Of the 10 songs, "The Letter" is the most compelling of the bunch, illuminating a hip-hop hillbilly path for Gray to pursue in future and proposing a radical shift that could liberate other artists of the African-Atlantic avant-garde.
The problem is that Gray's songs don't all add up to the whole new thang that she thinks she's delivering. "I Try" is a lost track from Bowie's "Hunky Dory" and "I Can't Wait to Meetchu" evokes vintage Brand New Heavies. For those waiting to exhale on the new soul/black rock pilgrimage, the air around Macy Gray and her overrated, overhyped platter is woefully thin.