Not too many singers dare step into the raw blues shoes of Etta James. With her latest album, Loving You More…In the Spirit of Etta James, Leela James steps up to the plate with a sultry voice and raspy snarl and delivers a solid double in honor of the late singer (who died in January 2012). One fear and hope come to mind with any tribute album – that it’ll be karaoke or it will take the original music to some magical place you never imagined. Leela James’ tribute album sidesteps the American Idol treatment of the selected pieces of Etta James’ catalog, yet doesn’t stretch too far beyond r&b conventions for the newer versions. James has noted that this album serves to keep the elder James’ music alive for a new generation, so as a primer for the uninitiated, Loving You More… offers just enough newness for long-time fans without going too far off-course, accurately introducing the spirit of Etta James’ songs to younger audiences.
“I Wanna Ta-Ta You Baby” is imbued with a knowing wink that does its innuendo-filled title justice. Though the elements that made Etta James’ version (and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s original) swing are still present, Leela James’ vocal range adds a touch of something grander. “Damn Your Eyes” gets slowed down and watered down, but has its own synth-y ‘80s charm to it. “Nobody Loves You Like Me” drips with attitude allowing Leela James’ own style to take the lead on one of Etta James’ more uptempo tracks. “Sunday Kind Of Love” provides a softer feel, capturing the requisite lazy Sunday-in-bed vibe complemented by airy back-up vocals. The obvious choice to include and blow apart as a new creation or exclude for its predictability would be Etta James’ trademark, “At Last.” Leela James opts for its inclusion, giving it the duet treatment with co-producer Shannon Sanders. It’s fine, but if it were absent, you’d only miss it on principle.
James brings her own bluesy soul and vocal chops to this tribute album, but often dwells in a contemporary r&b place, which doesn’t provide the most mind-blowing interpretations. Taken out of the context of paying homage, though, this album stands on its own as a gaze into contemporary blues, perhaps the greatest compliment Leela James can pay to the timelessness of her musical inspiration.
– Candace L.