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There are two retro-soul singers in the US top 10 album chart at the moment. Both are young, English and white: Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse. So this should be a propitious moment for Macy Gray to make a comeback. As a black American woman in her late 30s with an extraordinary voice, she fits the profile of the classic soul singer better than either Stone or Winehouse. Will her new album Big see her recapture a slice of the retro- soul pie?
Gray’s breakthrough album, 1999’s On How Life Is, sold 7m copies. But its successors frittered away her audience: The Id was judged too eccentric and The Trouble with Being Myself was a flop. She has struggled to find the songs to match her voice, and Big suggests the struggle is not yet won. A reflective, adult affair, it tones down her idiosyncrasies (her vocals have lost some of their helium bounce) but the results are patchy.
She announced herself at this comeback show with “Sex-o-matic Venus Freak”, a track from her old Funkadelic-meets-Billie Holiday days. It was a lively intro but a misguiding pointer to her new material, which is dominated by mid-tempo soul tracks handsomely scored for strings and keyboards.
“Finally Made Me Happy” was a stately break-up song on which Gray’s voice sounded both smoky and girlish. “Shoo Be Doo”, in contrast, was dull and meandering, like a disoriented Stevie Wonder track. “Okay”, produced by Justin Timberlake, squandered the goodwill of its catchy, Timberlake-esque chorus on messy, stop-start harmonies.
The tempo picked up in the second half of the show. “Everybody” made an infectious and unexpected detour into electro-pop. “Oblivion”, a weirdly enjoyable ska-meets-Cabaret number, and “Relating to a Psychopath”, a 1970s-style funk jam – both are tracks from The Id – were full of life and colour. They were reminders of the bold, Day-Glo singer who only sporadically makes her presence felt on Big.
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