The Good: Decent lyrics, A unique sound, Some of the music actually rocks
The Bad: Some of the music
The Basics: A generally soulful album, Macy Gray's On How Life Is rises to the occasion of presenting a legitimate artist well.
In perhaps the moment of greatest anti-celebrity cruelty of my life - which I seem to have no problem sharing with an audience of strangers - I recall the moment I first heard "Why Didn't You Call Me" by Macy Gray. Earlier that day, I had seen a picture of Macy Gray in a long coat and - even outside the mass of her hair - the overwhelming impression left by the photograph was that Macy Gray was a woman with an unusually, some might say "freakishly," large head. Gray's disproportionately large head, in combination with having heard "I Try" at least two hundred times by that point, led me to the cruel thought, "Have you seen yourself, you bobble-headed freak?!" the first time "Why Didn't You Call Me" came over my radio. Perhaps that's why the liner noted to On How Life Is, Macy Gray's breakout album, only features photographs of her head.
Or, perhaps, unlike so many pop artists at the turn of the millennium, Macy Gray was a serious artist, marketing her art and not herself.
With only ten tracks, On How Life Is is certainly not the most ambitious album I've ever heard, but it is a consistently decent one. I attribute this to the strength of the lyrics, all of which are written by Macy Gray. Gray is an able poet, as is clearly evident in the opening to her smash hit "I Try," "Games, changes and fears / When will they go from here / When will they stop / I believe that fate has brought us here / And we should be together / But we're not." Even without the music, Gray's writings contain the poignant stops that make for wonderful poetry. Hers have punch.
On How Life Is is an unabashedly sexual album, with "I Try" being surrounded by "Caligula" and "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak." "Caligula," appropriately enough, explores an unhealthy sexual relationship involving dominance and lust and "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak" seems to just relish in the joys of sexual exploration. Are they the best tracks? Well, "Caligula" might be, but there's a strange juvenile quality to the latter track that makes it seem less profound.
Where Macy Gray succeeds most, perhaps, is on her gospel-lyriced pop-sound "I Can't Wait To Meetchu." "I Can't Wait To Meetchu" is a disarming little Christian-rock song about the desire to meet god. Gray sings it quite directly with "Love the life I'm livin though I'm lookin forward to the day I die / Oh my lord, I can't wait to meetchu." Normally, this sort of song would just creep me out, but Gray sells it with soul and a unique flavor.
Macy Gray's sound is a strong female vocal presence that blends soul and pop in a way that I haven't heard since "It's Rainin' Men." She's got a bit of a funk edge to the music that backs her, which may or not be her choice as she only co-wrote the music on two of the ten tracks. It generally works well for her, though her best songs are the softer "Still" and "I Try."
The thing about the music is that Macy Gray is one of an increasing number of pop artists who neither plays their own music nor writes much of it. Nor is she backed by real musicians. This entire album is engineered, musical backings produced in a studio using samples, generic instrumental sounds and in that way, the album lacks some soul.
Where it makes it up is in the voice and lyrics of Macy Gray. While some of her songs are just weird ("Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak" and the outright ghetto revenge song "I've Committed Murder"), the ones where she sings about universal themes of love and loving, she makes it work. Gray's voice, while annoying after hundreds of spins of her major hit, is unique and it works well. She has an articulate, strong voice that is unique on the radio.
Who would have guessed that after having such a negative reaction to her (when I first heard "I Try," I loved it, it was after it was constantly on the radio that my distaste for it grew), I would find myself wishing to hear more from this genuine artist?! The best track is "Still," the worst is "I've Committed Murder" (the inane question "Would you?" near the end of the song is just unforgivably bad).
And, for the record, no one deserves not to be called, so either don't say you'll call or call her. Even Macy Gray.
For other true originals, check out my reviews of:
The Best Of Sophie B. Hawkins - Sophie B. Hawkins
Extraordinary Machine - Fiona Apple
My Better Self - Dar Williams
For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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