For the better part of two decades, singer Macy Gray’s music could definitely be classified as “bold.” Starting with her first single, “I Try,” her voice has been the focus of all her songs, working in the same, rough-around-the-edges vein as the likes of Janis Joplin. Her voice is an acquired taste, definitely, and what can be seen as rough edges by some is merely raspy to others.
Therefore, it’s an absolute joy to hear Gray taking that rasp and making it work in the best possible way on this collection of originals and covers. Stripped is an absolutely perfect Saturday evening cocktail record. Working with a four-piece jazz band, Gray has made the sort of record which can redefine a career. After so many years of soul and R&B, hearing the singer working in a purely jazz context demonstrates that she’s got one of those voices which only improves with age.
Something like “Slowly,” from Gray’s 2007 album, Big, which was never really anything noticeable, becomes an album highlight, and the late-night jazz take on her biggest hit recontextualizes “I Try.” It’s now less a brash declaration of a young woman and more as the good-humored recollections of someone who’s learned from their past mistakes.
The album’s two covers — Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” and “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley — fit perfectly. The Metallica song was previously taken on by Gray on Covered, from 2012, but the jazz take really emphasizes the quiet despair in the track. The piano-based version on Covered was good, but Stripped’s take is both simple and lush, all at once. “Redemption Song” is fairly straightforward, but so well suited by Gray’s singing that a familiar song once again becomes fresh.
Really, it feels like this is Gray realizing the potential everyone heard on that first single. For all the vocal acrobatics, interesting choices of inflection, and so on, she can sing like crazy. On these songs, it’s like she’s applied a laser focus to her singing, and concentrated on making this the best record she’s thus done. There’s no production tricks (binaural microphones aside), and what Gray and this quartet does is nothing short of near-perfection.
The fullness of Stripped is astonishing. The binaural recording technique has always seemed a little too precious, and rarely yielded results which I felt justified the “to-do” surrounding its use, but for such a simple recording, this is rich. Sitting in front of my speakers, I frequently found myself just marveling at how much it felt like the group was right there in my living room. The brushes on the drums, the scrape of fingers on strings: you can hear it all, and it’s marvelous.
The packaging is pretty bare-bones, but there’s a great poly sleeve inside, demonstrating Chesky really cares about making sure your record stays scratch-free as long as absolutely possible. The vinyl’s absolutely solid and heavy-duty, as well. A big downside is that the LP has two fewer songs than the compact disc or digital versions, leaving off both 2003’s “She Ain’t Right For You,” from The Trouble with Being Myself, as well as “Lucy,” a brand-new song written during the sessions for Stripped. Hearing “Lucy,” a new song, alongside these older and reimagined tracks would’ve really given the album something more.
There are no extras.