The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts -

Tenyears ago, Jack In­gram’s swag­ger­ing mix of Texas twang and South­ern rock had peo­ple herald­ing him as the next Steve Earle. That didn’t hap­pen, and look­ing back now — and even with Earle pro­duc­ing In­gram’s break­through album — it prob­a­bly wasn’t fair to ex­pect that it would. In­gram is nei­ther the writer Earle is, nor does he have his fel­low Texan’s fire­brand per­sona. He’s best at mak­ing gritty, crowd-pleas­ing roots mu­sic, which is just what — apart from two or three slick ready-mades — his new album de­liv­ers.

The track that sounds most out of place on the record is “Lips of an An­gel,” a cover of a hack­neyed bal­lad by are­narock­ers Hin­der. Both it and the midtempo love song “Wher­ever You Are” smack of be­ing late-minute ad­di­tions in a bid for main­stream air­play. But just about ev­ery­thing else here — the press­ing rhythms, the rugged vo­cals, the hard-charg­ing gui­tars — could pass for prime Steve Earle, no­tably the Out­law blues of “Love You” and the wry, rest­less trou­ba­dour rock of “Easy as 1, 2, 3 (Part II).”

“Ava Adele,” a spare, steel gui­tar­sweet­ened bal­lad, of­fers a nice change of pace mid­way through the pro­gram, and “All I Can Do,” the album’s clos­ing track, makes ju­di­cious use of horns af­ter the fash­ion of the best South­ern pop. Most of what’s here, though, is rock­ing coun­try mu­sic sung in a gruff, con­ver­sa­tional de­liv­ery rem­i­nis­cent of an­other Texas torch­bearer, Jerry Jeff Walker. Tack­ling themes rang­ing from in­ti­macy and com­mit­ment to lessons learned, “This Is It” is mostly grown-up stuff, brac­ing and full of con­vic­tion. DOWN­LOAD TH­ESE: “Love You,” “Easy as 1, 2, 3 (Part II),” “All I Can Do”

Ma­cyBIG Macy Gray THIS IS IT Jack In­gram

DOWN­LOAD TH­ESE: “Get Out,” “Okay,” “Fi­nally Made Me Happy”

— Bill Friskics-War­ren

Gray has been straight­en­ing up her act, and her hair, to show that her latest album, “Big,” is a pol­ished, ma­ture ef­fort di­vorced from her well-doc­u­mented er­ratic an­tics.

Gray is so se­ri­ous about the make­un­der that she has en­listed the help of Natalie Cole, pa­tron saint of way­ward di­vas, who suc­cess­fully tran­si­tioned from sub­stance abuser to model of R&B re­spectabil­ity. With Cole’s as­sis­tance, Gray is classy yet still provoca­tive on album-opener “Fi­nally Made Me Happy,” an up­side-down torch song that leaves her pe­cu­liar­i­ties in­tact.

By hook­ing up with sev­eral new col­lab­o­ra­tors (in­clud­ing Will.I.Am) and drop­ping old ones (drugs?), Gray ad­min­is­ters the per­fect, care­fully con­trolled dose of her quirk­i­ness — “Big” falls squarely be­tween her san­i­tized 1999 de­but and 2001’s un­hinged “The Id.”

The pro­duc­tion team of Will.I.Am and Justin Tim­ber­lake — the JAW­Break­ers — are most adept at chan­nel­ing Gray’s strange­ness. On “Okay,” a mil­i­tary snare drum that mel­lows into a po­lite knock turns a sin­gle mother’s lament into an eclec­tic dance track. The cho­rus of “Get Out,” is just an­other pop re­cy­cling of Allen Tous­saint’s “Get Out of My Life Wo­man,” but the elec­tro patty-cake rhythm of the track makes for, as Macy tells us, “the beat of the cen­tury — made by Justin.”

“Big” is not with­out the mid­dling, in­of­fen­sive songs that have made Gray a fa­vorite of sit­com mu­sic su­per­vi­sors (“Shoo Be Do (No Words),” “What I Gotta Do,”), but the dull bal­lads are for­given when Gray coughs out “Strange Be­hav­ior,” the tale of a cou­ple try­ing to kill each other for in­sur­ance money, that is styled like an op­ti­mistic love song that has gone off its meds.

— Sarah God­frey


Is she se­ri­ous? Macy Gray keeps her quirk­i­ness un­der con­trol on her new CD.

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