Release Date: 05.25.04
Record label: 19 Records
Just the Sum of Her Parts, But They're Great Parts
by: matt cibula
Tamyra Gray got jobbed on Season One of “American Idol.” You know it, I know it, everyone knows it: Kelly Clarkson’s album was pretty good, but come on, America: Justin Freakin’ Guarini? But anyway, it’s over now, nothing to be done, move on, etc.
It’s taken Tamyra two years and change, though, to come up with her first album. This is because she wanted to do things right, by her own code. She’s a songwriter, so she wrote (co-wrote) all the songs, along with some writers and producers you’ve never heard of. She’s wholesome, so there are no sexxx jammmz, but she’s soulful, so she gets to wail out hard on some cuts. Yet she’s still a pop professional, so there are also moments of unbelievable commerce. A lot of sweat and hard work and worry went into this record, and she’s banking on people caring about that. (I think she’s overestimating America’s capacity for empathy, but whatever.)
So I’m glad to report that the songs are pretty good, overall, well-written and pretty and hooky. Gray knows her strengths, and plays to them in songs like “Legend,” where she knows that the 6/8-ish dusty storm rhythm will let her slow-burn up to the chorus and then drop back into hush mode only to build up again; it’s the whole quiet-loud thing, we know it well, we love it, it’s workin’ for her.
Most of the tunes here can be easily described as r&b pop, but Gray doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, so some of the stuff here is pretty surprising: “Faces” is a real old-fashioned rock power ballad; if it sounds a bit like Jefferson Starship doing Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat,” then at least her strong lovely voice keeps things interesting: “You kick me when I’m down / Trap me when I’m free / Cut me with your lies / Stand back and watch me bleed”. (Yeah, it’s a little corny, but it’s also awesome. Feel the paradox.) There is a lot of techno trying to escape on “Like a Child,” burbling synths gossiping across the speakers, a harp sample, lovely really. And “Don’t Stop (Keep It Coming)” is closer to Off the Wall than Thriller, but that’s an awesome thing—the strings swell, the funky groove is very 1970s-Quincy-Jones, and it’ll be lighting up a lot of dancefloors this summer. It’s like she’s channeling Rod Temperton!
That’s the biggest problem here: Tamyra Gray doesn’t seem to be much more at this point than the sum of her parts. The first song aims at being a Stevie Wonder outtake (probably around the time of Fulfillingness’ First Finale), and sinks that battleship with ease. “You’ve Only Got 1” is just exactly a Jill Scott Song, “Ha Ha” is Badu-istically Delicious, and the big fat epic closer “God Bless the Dreamer” might as well have walked out of the Diane Warren Hit Machine…except with a little more soul than you’re gonna get with Diane Warren. Gray is still doing the whole “American Idol” thing: New song, new style, watch me adapt to it!
But this doesn’t mean it’s bad. I’m all for musical diversity; hell, she nails it every time, both vocally and lyrically, in a sweet unpretentious unchallenging way that sounds great in your car. So what, really, if she’s not bringing anything new to the table? It’s her first album, and it sounds really pretty, and a few sappy lyrics or obvious stylistic ripoffs aren’t going to spoil things for me. So I am giving the big thumbs up here, with the warning that you need a healthy tolerance level to get past some of the factory popcraft. 10-Jun-2004 9:20 PM