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July 7, 2011

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Savoring a voice like whisky and grenadine

TONIGHT, Macy Gray will sashay to the stage at M1NT (318 Fuzhou Road, near Shandong Road) on the strength of her own high-heeled feet and of her double Grammy-winning album "On How Life Is."

That album went triple platinum in the USA (3 million copies sold) and was also a hit with critics.

Since then, she has achieved some success, but none that has reached the same heights. To remind you a bit about how she got to be playing for the smartly dressed set at M1NT (dress code strictly enforced), here's a review of that album.

Gray has a voice that sounds of a whisky and grenadine cocktail, like Billie Holiday on helium, like sugar on sandpaper: It is both harsh and sweet, and it's unmistakable.

Like others with such distinct chords, Gray's presence might remind some of a constantly purring kitten: perhaps endearing, possibly not enduring.

That distinction follows the album as a whole. Gray's character is of an urban girl striving for the urbane; the young woman who works long hours in the hip coffee shop so she can soak in the jazz sound track and sophisticated patter of the customers.

She might be somewhat homely, but she strives to be attractive to guys she meets ("Why Didn't You Call Me?") and feebly fantasizes about defending her boyfriend from a boss when he gets fired ("I've Committed Murder"). It's an attractive character that makes Gray approachable.

The orchestration of the album is similarly welcoming, with warm keyboard and backing vocal tones whose smoothness counters Gray's rasp. Without the modern-sounding drum loops that lie at the bottom of each track, this album might sound more comfortable in 1979 than it does in 1999.

Not coincidentally, the sound of the album follows in the neo-soul sound popularized at the time by Erikah Badu, who Gray emulates to some degree.

So things seem so good so far, but then, nothing. The songs are pleasant but other than the centerpiece, "I Try" - rightfully considered one of the best songs of the late 1990s - little really sticks out. There's nothing that begs to be listened to over again, that reaches out and grabs the listener.

On "I Try," the song is dynamic in sound and mood, shifting from melancholic, to understanding, to striving, to triumphant. Gray takes the two-word phrase at the heart of the song and examines every facet, all while remaining cool. On the other songs of "On How Life Is," only the coolness carries over.

By balancing at each turn, Gray never falls, but doesn't get very far either.

Perhaps it's the trepidations of a debut album. Perhaps she lacks the song craft.

It's impossible to tell, because she never takes the plunge and gives it a try, of all things.


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