When pop musicians create albums devoted to the work of other pop musicians, the projects usually take one of two forms. There’s the multiple-artists-in-a-single-album model, in which a singer pays tribute to a style of music (think Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue”) or interprets a set of favorite songs (Sandie Shaw’s “Reviewing the Situation”). Sometimes, artists limit themselves to a single source: the country singer Jamey Johnson just released “Living for a Song,” an excellent Hank Cochran tribute that includes duets with Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and others. Slightly rarer, though, is the album-length cover: in other words, an album that finds one artists rerecording another band’s full album. Pussy Galore famously covered the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.” Camper van Beethoven revisited Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” Pink Floyd’s records have been attempted by a variety of artists, from the Flaming Lips (who released their own version of “Dark Side of the Moon”) to Luther Wright and the Wrongs (who took “The Wall” over to the country side).
And Beck’s Record Club assembled a series of one-off groups to rerecord albums such as INXS’s “Kick” and the Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground and Nico.” The album-length cover is the rarest of the cover-album varieties for obvious reasons. It’s the one that exposes an artist’s influences most nakedly and, as such, the one leaves that artist most vulnerable to the extremes of interpretation—on one hand, accusations of slavish recreation; on the other, pressure to innovate in a way that can verge on desecration. Now there’s another major entry in the category: Macy Gray’s “Talking Book,” which is billed as a “love letter” to Stevie Wonder’s classic album on the occasion of its fortieth birthday. The project was produced by Hal Willner, who is best known for a series of defiantly eclectic high-concept cover albums in the eighties and nineties: “Lost in the Stars,” which let rock stars such as Lou Reed and Todd Rundgren take a crack at the music of Kurt Weill; “Weird Nightmare,” which collected Charles Mingus interpretations by artists as diverse as Chuck D. and Keith Richards.
Those records operated by a principle of productive collision, setting up profoundly unexpected pairings that either yielded magic or fell flat, and that same spirit guided “Covered,” a Willner-Gray collaboration from last year, which featured her takes on songs by Eurythmics, Metallica, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire, among others. This album is a little different. For starters, Wonder’s not an especially strange choice for Gray, and she and her small band mostly play it straight. It’s more a question of what they’re playing straight.
The original “Talking Book” is arguably the finest document of Wonder’s glory period, with a nearly perfect mix of pure popcraft and hard funk. Its two huge hits, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” aren’t even the best songs on the record: there’s “Maybe My Baby,” a definitive Hohner clavinet workout; the beautiful “You and I” (last year, George Michael rerecorded it as a wedding gift for Prince William and Kate Middleton); and the epochal album closer “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).” That’s the mountain that Gray has to climb, and at first it seems as if she’s going right up the side. The opener, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” leans on her trademark swet-but-rough vocals; they’re like honey with the stingers left in, and they give a little grit back to a song that can, at times, sound cloying.
And “Maybe Your Baby” is superb, a heavier version of the original, with swirling guitars and backup vocals that make it sound like early Funkadelic. After less energetic versions of “You and Me” and “Tuesday Heartbreak,” the reinterpretations become more radical. “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” has a stripped-down arrangement with a buzzy organ and insistent drums that don’t always serve it well, and while Gray’s decision not to approach “Superstition” head-on is admirable, her slow, menacing, sometimes sleepy version is better in conception than in execution. A cover version of an entire album, though, runs all the way through to the end, which works in her favor.
“Big Brother” follows the same template as “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” with better results; “Blame It On the Sun” does justice to one of Wonder’s loveliest ballads; and after a wobbly “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love” (it’s wobbly on the Wonder, too, though the new guitar work can’t compare to Jeff Beck’s original soaring solo) she heads down the homestretch with “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).” Here, Gray hits all the right notes, both as a singer and an interpreter: it’s a marvellous, expansive, eccentric performance that lifts off into gospel toward the end. The original version was about romantic love. This one may be about matters more divine (there’s one explicit mention of prayer), unless it’s just Gray’s way of reiterating her devotion for “Talking Book” itself. Either way, it’s a stirring closer, and a reminder that the most important thing about a love letter is how it ends. ( Posted By Ben Greenman at www.newyorker.com )