Sia, "We Are Born" (Monkey Puzzle-Jive)
Macy Gray, "The Sellout" (Concord)
The cover of Sia's previous record, 2008's "Some People Have Real Problems," featured a close-up portrait of the youthful blonde clutching a handful of ink markers, with which she had just drawn lines and hearts on her own face. "We Are Born" looks similar, but this time the close-up shows a much more styled, made-up Sia. The marks are not her own -- they're carefully applied dots and squares, appliqued stripes and a rainbow of pipe cleaners in her hair. The visual representation evokes the music on each album; Sia has transitioned from an interesting singer making her own mark to one who now works for Sony's Jive label and is being mashed into some templates into which she doesn't necessarily fit.
An influx of co-songwriters and some dense production slips Sia's trump card -- her bright but sultry voice -- too far down in the deck. Lite-funk ("Clap Your Hands"), Amy Winehouse balladry ("Be Good to Me") and vapid dance-rock ("Bring Night") are carefully compressed for radio, where they will slide right by your ears and never stick. A cover of Madonna's "Oh Father" lacks the biography to make it compelling. When she sings "You've changed -- for the better!" in the first single, "You've Changed," she's not looking in the mirror.
Another singer who once stood out with a sense of style and an rascally voice, Macy Gray, reaches a similar point in her career and at least faces it down by contributing more of her own writing, both lyrics and music. However, despite that news of increased involvement, she couldn't sound more disengaged. Most of her vocals sound like half-hearted rehearsal takes. The tunes are utterly forgettable ("Beauty in the World" is so juvenile). Midway through, she reaches for some of the old weirdness that made her noticeable and charming on her 1999 debut -- "That Man" is cute but anemic, and "Stalker" is creepy but cute -- but it never rises above the mediocrity. Even a duet with Bobby Brown ("Real Love") rolls by without raising the pulse rate or seeming like the coup it probably was.
Next time, ladies, switch production teams.