Leela James Gets Us ‘In The Spirit Of Etta James’

Tribute records are something I've rarely purchased over the years. Usually they've been done by multiple artists from too many genres in an effort to maximize the appeal. (The Curtis Mayfield tribute album comes to mind.) But an album from one artist, Leela James, paying tribute to a favorite legendary artist, Etta James, pulled me in like a tractor beam. Now, if you're a fan of both the legend and the youngin', you may assume by default they are better together. Leela definitely has the vocal chops to do Etta's music justice, no question. And she has that bittersweet mix of underground respect and lack of mainstream recognition that makes this album, Loving You More...In the Spirit of Etta James, seem sincere and not a cheesy commercial play. From a marketing standpoint, a newer artist reimagining time-tested standards by Etta James is a stroke of genius, because it will draw an entirely new set of listeners to her voice.

On the other hand something about this effort left me mildly wanting -- not enough to discourage you from buying it, but just wanting a little more...something. While I was very much interested to see how this talented writer/singer/producer would handle this type of rootsy rhythm and blues music, she misses the mark on capturing Etta James' spirit. Etta James was a brilliant singer, but she'd also rode a hard horse most of her life, as the saying goes. She had a major heroin addiction for years, faced financial ruin numerous times and was, by all accounts, hell on wheels to work with. It is that grit, that pain, that essence that Etta brought to each and every song, that doesn't quite come through with Leela.

One of the refreshing things about of this album is how Leela draws not only from Etta's better-known songs, but ones recorded throughout her career. She infuses fresh ideas into the music as well. This is particularly noticeable with her take on "Something's Got A Hold On Me," which has that same gospel-influenced, double-time rhythm that is back thanks to people like Beyoncé. Another stand out is "I'm Loving You More Every Day," originally a slower R&B ballad and transformed here into a sleek late-'70s style sophisticated dance/funk production reminiscent of Chic or GQ. Her take on the Etta and Johnny Guitar Watson duet "I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby" is deep, slow and funky to the end and another favorite. "Damn Your Eyes" finds Leela integrating Prince-style drum patterns into a very bluesy framework that comes out as a stripped-down version of Minneapolis funk.

There's also "Old School Kind Of Love," a deep, Moog and bass drenched jam of epically funky proportions. There are a lot of wonderfully done ballads here such as "It Hurts So Much." Spare, pounding drums take precedence on the powerful "Sunday Kind Of Love" --my favorite on this album, and my favorite Etta James song, period. The only fairly traditional take on anything is the closing "At Last," which Leela aces. Normally I'd have to err on the skeptical side when it comes to a contemporary vocalist reinterpreting the songs of someone who influenced multiple generations of singers. It would seem like a bit too much watering down of a classic song that was originally so thick with soul. What I realized is with a singer like Leela James is that influence has come full-circle. In the end, this is a great place not only for the young wanting to hear some of Etta's classics but also for music fans looking for a great introduction to the talent and vocal prowess of Leela James' music.

Leela James Loving You More...In the Spirit of Etta James [Amazon][iTunes]

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