MUSIC REVIEW: Macy Gray - Stripped
MACY GRAY - 'STRIPPED'
Chesky Records, JD389, Binaural Series.
Released September 2016
Received wisdom has it that MACY GRAY is somewhat of an accidental singer.
From her beginnings as a potential scriptwriter, a move into songwriting, a hesitant step into performance, a brief signing with ATLANTIC RECORDS (guess whose crying now) and bingo, a triple platinum album released in the U.S. Summer of '99. She even bagged a Grammy Award in 2001 for the song ' I TRY'.
But, of course, it could never be as simple as that. With the success, came the fame and the traps/trappings of celebrity. She has spoken of how difficult it was to manage the sudden ascent, but that is another story.
With hindsight, you can see a strong drive to remain relevant. She has released eight albums, done innumerable guest appearances and collaborations, had her music used in movies and television, and starred in a cluster of movies. Check out her standout role in the 2012 movie 'THE PAPERBOY' holding her own with the likes of Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and Zac Efron.
This woman is talented. And of course, it is the back story that informs the album under consideration here.
Released so recently, this set sees a collaboration between Macy Gray and Chesky Records producers David and Norman Chesky that has gone to the top of various jazz and r&b listings in the U.S.A. with almost indecent haste.
Chesky Records has released a number of excellent albums over the past year that use the Binaural Recording process in an endeavour to capture the sonic experience of a live, one pass performance. The Binaural process utilises a 'dummy head' recording system (B&K Binaural Head) attempting to replicate the manner in which multi-directional signals are heard by the the human ears.
Notable releases have been THE NEW APPALACHIANS set of roots inspired music, 'FROM THE MOUNTAINTOP" and CITY OF THE SUN with their dual guitar and percussion album, 'TO THE SUN AND ALL THE CITIES IN BETWEEN.'
Both these albums contain excellent musicianship and arrangements, which taken of themselves are worthy of consideration by anyone sick to death of the direction modern mainstream music is going. As to whether the actual recording process delivers what it aims for is, I believe a secondary consideration. On the evidence of the albums I have heard so far, I suspect it may be system dependent as to the results.
Obviously, the higher resolution your system can achieve, the better the resultant reproduction. Also, in theory, a classy set of headphones, well driven, should do the trick. Indeed, the description of the process notes that, in part, it is an attempt to deliver the spatial clues routinely heard via a good stereo speaker system via headphones, which as we know are prone to present a sound field 'within the head'.
Perhaps the best factor is the fact that you do not need another playback format to hear the actual music: Binaural Plus will play back on any CD player.
As with the aforementioned albums, ' STRIPPED' was recorded at THE HIRSCH CENTRE in Brooklyn, New York. This set was captured in two days, April 2016, which, all things considered, for ten tracks, is rather good going.
The assembled band features Russell Malone on Guitar, Daryl Johns on string bass, Ari Hoenig on percussion, and Wallace Roney blowing a fine line in trumpet. Nicholas Prout did the recording, editing and mastering, with Mor Mezrich and Max Steen in the engineering chairs.
Eight originals, one METALLICA classic and a BOB MARLEY favourite are on the table here. The originals suggest that Macy will not be receiving the next Nobel Prize for literature anytime soon. But as an interpreter of other writers work, she has nothing to prove. She is very, very capable.
This review has been compiled after numerous plays on a well warmed-up valve based system, driving a pair of Duntech floor standers.
Track 1 - 'Annabelle' - Macy's vocal sits in a definite central, front position. Guitar to the left, string bass to the right. The percussion has a now familiar quality which delineates a multi-mic'd kit from a Binaural tracking - a certain soft focus, with dynamics pointed by the actual ambience of the recording space.
Track 2 - 'Sweet Baby' - a more upbeat tune with the patent Macy drawl in full flow. The Jazz inflected BO-DIDDLEY beat is quite cool, with Wallace Roneys' trumpet getting a nice workout. The lyrics alas, are throw away.
Track 3 - 'I Try' - this is a fresh reading of her break-through tune. I prefer this to the original. With more miles on the clock, and a quite sparse backing, she gets a nice mix of weariness and defiance here.
Track 4 - 'Slowly' - I have no idea of where this came in the actual recording sessions, but in the sequencing of the album, this is the one where it all comes together: the band, the lyric, the voice, the dummy head, and perhaps the stars. This is the one where I kept forgetting to listen critically and repeatedly got sucked into the music itself. Quite a sensuous groove, and a lovely little trumpet playout to boot.
Track 5 - 'She Ain't Right For You' - what we have here is nothing less than a reggae beat masquerading as a soulful R&B tune. The drums are a bit cavernous for my liking, but otherwise it works well. String bass features in a rocking little solo.
Track 6 - 'First Time' - this one comes in with a lilting guitar line, and settles into a slow groove with Ari Hoenig doing some nice brush work on the snare. I notice Macy is either standing closer to the microphone, or perhaps this was recorded earlier in the sessions, for her diction is notably clearer, the lyric very easily followed. It sounds rather ' classic' overall.
Track 7 - 'Nothing Else Matters' - now this is interesting. What a brave choice. The original METALLICA version is performed as a song of hard worn experience and inevitable resolve. Truth in individuation and willingness to go it alone. With only the lyric retained, Macy reads this as a song of uncertainty, with no assurance of eventual triumph. Weariness and wariness co-existing. Such an interesting take. The bonus is a few trumpet flourishes toward the end that would do Mark Isham proud.
Track 8 - 'Redemption Song' - this oft-covered Marley classic sits nicely, and logically after 'Nothing Else Matters'. Over a gentle and unobtrusive backing, this is Macy giving a respectful view of a very concise personal manifesto from 'The Other Bob'. This is how I imagine Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holliday would do it. Quite moving, and I find I hit repeat on this one.
Track 9 - 'The Heart' - a slow blues with an arpeggiated guitar figure and again, the brushed snare, and rolling bass line. Macy has a nice balance here; clear diction with the gravel in her voice pitched just right.
Track 10 - ' Lucy' - trumpeter Wallace Roney kicks this off with some great lines, and his talent is evident throughout the track. It's a nice kiss off track for the album. It does leave me with the question; is Macy singing about what I think she is singing about? (Answers may be sent to President Trump, c/o Post Apocalypse America)
Take the album for what it is, a tasty, often very interesting take on modern and traditional R&B and soul. Some listeners will also call it jazz. It really does not matter. It is simply a good album.
As to whether the attributes of the recording process draw you in may be to some extent determined by the make up of your playback system.
COLLECTABILITY - Fan Non-Fan
For more information, visit www.chesky.com
A walking encyclopedia of music, David's broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.
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