- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

From the opening notes of “The Trouble With Being Myself,” neo-soul singer Macy Gray’s latest album, the listener might be forgiven for thinking he’s in for a chandelier-swingin’ party that’s long on high-calorie hooks but short on meaty substance.

On the first cut, a retro-funkified riff on lovers bouncing between shouting matches and make-up kisses called “When I See You,” a guitar clicks out a one-note octave figure that evokes the Jackson Five and the “Theme From Shaft.”

It’s an auspicious beginning, but one that doesn’t necessarily suggest the bundle of tones and modes that follows.

Amazingly for an album so tightly and cohesively structured, “Trouble” manages to flit across several strains of black American music and does so with both a let-the-good-times-roll spirit and a rock-hard dignity.

There are chandelier swingers, for sure; but there’s a mean streak (“She Ain’t Right for You,” “She Don’t Write Songs About You”) and a contemplative streak (“Things That Made Me Change,” “Happiness”) as well.

The rooted eclecticism of “Trouble” is a pleasant surprise, given the involvement of executive producer Dallas Austin, a knob-twiddling impresario-writer-arranger known for working with teeny-bopper acts such as Boys II Men and Monica.

Miss Gray didn’t get her start until she was in her late 20s, with 1999’s debut album, “On How Life Is,” but one gets the feeling that even in her teens, the classically trained pianist was beyond her years — just as she is today.

“Trouble” serves up a satisfying gumbo of classic soul balladry, fusion funk and contemporary hip-hop (“It Ain’t the Money,” featuring rapper Pharoahe Monch as well as guest performer and co-writer Beck’s mumbly crooning).

Heck, there’s even a little touch of salsa on “My Fondest Childhood Memories,” a waggishly murderous tale of a young Miss Gray offing a baby sitter for “sexing” her father and a plumber for doing the same to “momma.”

(Perhaps we should be worried: Miss Gray has fantasized about homicide before — on “I’ve Committed Murder,” from “On How Life Is.”)

“My parents are still happily married, thanks to me,” she sings on “Memories” in a raspy purr that borrows more from the criminally underappreciated Ann Peebles than from mega-divas such as Aretha Franklin.

When she’s not funking things up Parliament-style with Wurlitzer pianos and Moog synthesizers swirling in the mix, she’s just as comfortable in the down-tempo, R&B; singer-songwriter mode.

Put another way, Miss Gray is as adept with the anthemic (“Come Together”) as she is with the introspective (“Jesus for a Day,” on which she daydreams of perfection and having things her way for a change), a versatility that kept fans of Stevie Wonder on their toes for a solid run of albums between 1966 and ‘76.

Macy Gray is no Stevie Wonder. Not yet, anyway. A passel of co-producers and co-writers are credited on “Trouble,” rendering Miss Gray’s actual creative input a little suspect.

That’s not to say she’s handled like teen-pop princess Avril Lavigne, who would be nothing more than a refrigerator-door poet if it weren’t for a hit-factory production-writing trio called the Matrix.

Miss Gray is better than that. She’s more like Miss Franklin, in a way — an original talent, yes, but not necessarily a creative prodigy.

“Trouble” is just her third album, though, and each release has been better than the one before it.

There’s nothing troubling about that.

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