Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Kat's Korner: Etta James Takes It All The Way

Kat: Women's history month is coming to a close and what better way to go out than on Etta James?

Etta James is living history. "At Last" remains a standard that never goes out of style. "The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry)" also never seems to go out of fashion. The latter song, which many may know from the original Back to the Future film, was written by James as a response to "Work With Me, Annie" by Hank Ballard. With well over twenty rhythm & blues charting singles, James' body of work may be less well known to some fans of White pop, but her accomplishments are legendary and she ranks with the likes of Aretha Franklin when it comes to success on the R&B charts.

And in more recent times? James has been on a winning streak lately. 2003 brought a Lifetime Grammy award, while 2004's Blues to the Bone album won a Grammy for best blues album. Name a musical honor and, chances are, James holds it for her outstanding recording work that spans five decades. Now, on the verge of seventy (January 2007), James has released her latest album.

It's called All The Way and between the title (think Frank Sinatra) and talk in interviews of how the label wanted a more "lush" album, I wasn't expecting much. To me, Etta James is blues and jazz and a great deal more. She's a live performer reaching out to you with all the experiences (pain and joy) that only a fully lived life can convey. She's someone whose voice reaches across any stage (I've seen her live four times) and just grabs you. If you're smart, you go along with that voice for the entire performance. Afterwards, you're wiped out and you only heard the amazement, she produced it. So I figured, "I'll skip the album and catch the tour.

Turns out the tour, or first leg of it, isn't coming near me. Fortunately, Rebecca stayed on my case, swearing, "Kat, you will love this CD!"

The first track didn't convince me. Etta James' vocal style finds a way into the song that's unique but the accompaniment is standard with the exception of some fine horn work by Ronnie Buttacavoli. The rest of the instrumentation seems standard issue watered down Nelson Riddle to me. Then comes a Bobby Womak classic, "Stop On By" and she's breathing into the song, giving it life and Donto James (her son) is doing some nice drum work. I really think this should have been the opening track. From that second song, the album doesn't let up.

"Purple Rain"? I love Prince and wondered exactly what James was going to be doing with this one. This is probably one of the best conceived covers on the disc, containing the best interplay between her vocals and the music. It's rare that someone can record a Prince song, one he's recorded, and put their own personal stamp on it (as opposed to Lisa Lisa et al taking a song he wrote for someone else and making it their own), but she does that. This isn't Jordan Knight taking a flaming hot song by Prince and reducing it to soggy teeny-bop.

Between the two songs, you're treated to some amazing performances that demonstrate exactly why she's still worth listening to. (If she's coming to your area, see her live. Hopefully she'll make a live recording of the tour -- more to the point, hopefully, more dates will be added to the tour.) And she's not wasting her time (or your time) trying to figure out what she wants to state on this album. "Imagine," "Calling You," "What's Going On?" and many others convey that the world is, as the Temptations once pointed out, a ball of confusion.

She resists the urge to romanticize. She's looking at a very troubled, very confused world. Her version of "Somewhere" offers not a dreamy escape but a possibility: "someday" -- a survivor refusing to promise a perfect existence, just the fact that something better will come along if you hang in.

"I'll keep holding on" she and the background singers repeat in the song that follows, underscoring that better lies down the road, not perfection. "Holding Back The Years" is the song and you believe her when she sings "Nothing has the chance to be good, nothing ever could." Simply Red fans take note, Mick Hucknall wrote the song but Etta James seems to have grasped the lyrics. (Also check out the horns and the rhythm section on this track.)

"Imagine." John Lennon's classic that often seems done to death. You hear a cover and think "Eh" and then you stumble upon Lennon's version and realize the greatness of it all over again. This has actually been a good time for the song. Dolly Parton turned it into a rousing call and response on Those Were The Days and now Etta James takes a crack at the song. Like Parton, James refuses to anthem-ize it. Another successful version, from the early seventies, was done by Diana Ross. The key to putting your stamp (in a good way) on the song appears to be not attempting to go for bombast. If you're turning it into "Where The Streets Have No Name" (or worse), you're taking a simple plea for peace and overpowering it with grotesque production. James succeeds, as has so often been the case in her career, due to grasping the song's meaning and shading it in such a way that she adds her own levels.

That's why even "I Believe I Can Fly" works. If, like me, you've heard it in far too many elementary and junior high programs during the last decade, you may be wary. I was. I'd heard too many "big solo" recitals of the song, so many that I thought I'd heard the song more than enough for this lifetime. But a real singer, someone who can convey and shade a lyric, not just hop around the vocal scales, can bring new meaning and life to many old warhorses that you thought needed to be put down.

In this age of American Idol, where bombast rules and syllables are drawn out not to convey emotion but to scare you into submission, Etta James demonstrates repeatedly that a career requires far more than a crop top, cleavage and steroid enhanced singing. A real singer draws you in, pretenders push you away.

And for ten amazing songs, Etta James does just that. Eleven if you let "All The Way" grow on you. (Strong vocal but I can't take the production once it kicks in.) For me, it's the weakest on the album -- and probably just what the label was intending when they requested "lush." Probably thought, "Rod Stewart's moving units with his lush albums! James can too!" Rod moves many units, but, forget the man who sang "Every Picture Tells A Story," right now I'd settle for even half the depth of "Young Turks." Even "Some Guys Have All The Luck" would be a relief right about now.

With Stewart's latest albums, I'm always afraid Mitch Miller is about to bound in the room and beseech me to sing along. James' project reminds me more of the success Clive Davis had in the sixties and seventies at Columbia when he got artists to commit to more current material. (Barbra, please go back down the "Stoney End" real soon.)

I mentioned to Sumner what I was reviewing and he informed that the album's been raked over the coals by a few reviewers.

That surprised me at first. Then I started thinking, "Okay, this is probably the same sort that couldn't get into her in the sixties" -- the set more comfortable listening to Petulia Clark (think Kelly Clarkson) than to Etta. It was their loss then, it's their loss now. I decided to test that theory. One "wit" who called the album "toothless" and then tried to crack a joke about the orthodontist (let's hope he at least laughed)? He also selected Britney Spear's "Toxic" as one of the top ten singles of 2004. I think that says far more than his lame attempts at jokes.

So there it is. If you're idea of "best" is a singer who can't sing flaunting it on disc, well good luck to you on that. I'm guessing you regularly rush to CD Warehouse to thin out your collection -- in an attempt to purge your many embarrassments -- embarrassing purchases that made many a "hot list." Remember, Tiffany made some "hot lists" in her day, as does Kelly Clarkson today and Petulia Clark before. "Hot list" artists tend to cool off quickly.

But we both know the change is coming
Come in closer, sweet release
I am calling you
Can't you hear me?
I am calling you

On "Calling You" and the entire album, you hear a real artist taking a look at the world around her -- a world that's torn by war as well as natural and governmental destruction. (The album seems to be commenting on both Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war.) The theme is perseverance and the one review I read failed to grasp that. Possibly because she's not hopping around braless and breathless in a video cooing, "A guy like you should come with a warning"? Possibly because she's not promising something she'll never deliver because the Etta James never existed to take anyone only half-the-way?

Etta James' gift, though appreciated by many, has never been appreciated by all. If you're someone who gets it, get All The Way.