It has often been said (frequently on the TV show American Idol) that Stevie Wonder’s songs seem deceptively simple, yet are actually complex and difficult to sing. Thus, it may seem odd that Macy Gray, with her raspy voice and somewhat narrow range, has elected to cover not only a Stevie Wonder song, but an entire Stevie Wonder album. Talking Book, the first of her albums that I’ve listened to, is a reworking of Wonder’s 1972 release. Gray covers all 10 of the original tracks in order.
Surprising though it may be, the results show that Gray’s judgment is just fine and she generally adds some energy and unique flavors to Wonder’s sometimes understated versions. In college, I often listened to Talking Book and felt it was filled with great songs. But his recordings seemed like preliminary, unfinished versions. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” now comes off as nice and breezy and jazzy, with a few Brasil ’66 touches. It would be the perfect song for a Sunday drive in a top-down convertible in southern California.
On “With You and I (We Can Conquer the World)” Gray adds a sense of joy and hopefulness to the romantic tone. “Blame It on the Sun,” one of Wonder’s almost-lost classics, is now brought back to life. The sorrow for a love once here, now gone, lies just on the edge of Gray’s voice. “Tuesday Heartbreak” sounds like a track from a romantic movie soundtrack (hint, hint). And the essential song “Superstition” is now spooky and moody; Gray presents the listener with a seemingly daydreamed version of Stevie Wonder’s simply great original.
“Big Brother” is now more upbeat than the original recording. In a word, it’s sweet. Three of the songs, “Maybe Your Baby,” “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” and “Lookin’ For Another Love” are perhaps too close to the original versions, but with Stevie that’s not such a bad thing. And Talking Book closes on the bright spot “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).” Here, Wonder’s romantic anthem is presented in an arrangement that makes it sound as if two songs were merged into a medley. A sense of joyfulness returns with traces of Johnny Nash-style sound (“I Can See Clearly Now”) heard in the background.
As a concept, attempting to recreate (and perhaps improve upon) one of Wonder’s better albums seemed far from promising. It was, after all, 40 years ago that the vinyl album arrived in record stores. But Macy Gray holds her own and, strangely enough, her world-weary voice presents just the opposite message—that she loves life and the music of Stevie Wonder.
I have the feeling that Wonder will be quite pleased with this audio valentine, something that might also be true for a number of music purchasers.