Much has been made of Macy Gray's come-from-behind tackle: out of nowhere, a new voice, a new attitude, a new sound for our tired ears -- all contained in one remarkable debut, On How Life Is. Well, not entirely new -- the former USC film student's tunes pack the best of plenty of genres (soul, blues, hip-hop, and more), Ouija-board evocations that close the gap between early De la Soul to late Billie Holiday. Some may lament the rising star's ties to her Midas-touch producer Andrew Slater (Fiona Apple, the Wallflowers), but the halo glows over the undeniably gifted Gray, not over a guy who twiddles knobs. Her voice is remarkable -- raspy, soulful, winking at you but never insincere -- and her lyrics and arrangements follow suit, whether covering the coldest separations, the hottest sex, or the stuff that happens in between. You know, life.
At 29, Gray is no neophyte; she's just new to success. It's an odd story: raised in suburban Ohio, educated (academically and chops-wise) in the car crash of culture that is Los Angeles, and now, three kids and one album later, winning the praise of every critic and musician this side of Mongolia. She's no starry-eyed teenager with a karaoke machine and a Svengali manager or a Fugee refugee with years of industry experience, which is one of the beautiful things about Gray's story and success. She's unassumingly real, the music is too, and it looks like her burgeoning fame may be a sincere version of the real thing too. (So good things do happen in the big bad music business.) And while we may all be waiting for a follow-up album to cast our lasting vote, On How Life Is suffers nary a weak spot -- you get the impression there's plenty more where this came from.
Gray's live show is reportedly excellent; reviewers describe her as spontaneous, ultra-magnetic, casual, playfully self-deprecating, and ever in command of the material. When she hits the best small-big stage in town, the Gypsy Tea Room, with a sizable backing band, the results may turn out to be the best show of the new year.