As a live performer, LA-born and bred powerhouse Leela James has been undeniable. As a studio artist? Not so much…until now. The first complete album to ever thoroughly present Leela James as more than just a big voice with conscious thoughts, Loving You More…In The Spirit of Etta James presents Leela James as a fully realized artist. Producers and songwriters Shannon Sanders (Heather Headley, Anthony David) and Drew Ramsey (Marc Broussard, India.Arie) capture lightning in a bottle, but also manage to harness and refine it, delivering the Leela fans have loved live but one that’s more seasoned and nuanced too. What a difference the right team makes.
With her big, bright hair, mini-hourglass, and impossibly high heels, Leela James has been a musical force for nearly two decades, making her uncredited debut on a 1990s soundtrack while still in high school, long before the world embraced her with her 2005 debut, A Change Is Gonna Come. With a slew of big named producers on her entrée that included Commissioner Gordon and Raphael Saadiq, James should have delivered nothing short of a magnum opus to rival Lauryn Hill. She already had half Lauryn’s writing and production team, a bigger voice, and plenty of social and political consciousness as several cuts on her often lauded debut made clear. And yet, despite glimpses of greatness like “Music” and “My Joy”…there was always something unnamable, unquantifiable that was absent from many of her recordings but vibrantly alive whenever you witnessed Leela James live. And to witness Leela James live is to witness a revelation.
That is not to say James has not had moments, including several on A Change… Most recently, James has had a shining hour or three from her albums, My Soul (2010) and Let’s Do It Again (2009), the latter boasting memorable performances on Womack and Womack’s “Baby I’m Scared of You,” Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman,” and Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is.” But, that’s all changed with the delivery of this delectable tribute to the late, great Etta James.
On Loving You More… James does not try to emulate Etta as much as she embodies her spirit. With smoldering performances like the moody “Damn Your Eyes” and funky “I Wanna Ta-Ta You Baby,” James demonstrates that she simply is the Etta James for our times. Bold and nuanced, uncovering fresh meaning in Etta James's classic and obscure material, Leela owns the church of “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” and the cry in “It Hurts Me So Much.” She finds ways to keep the whole of the proceedings up even when she’s singing low, like “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Note the sun and fun of her hip hop tinged summer jam, “I’m Loving You More Every Day,” which rivals — and is a nice melodic companion piece to -- R. Kelly’s radio delight, “Feelin’ Single.”
Thanks to the production re-imaginings of Grammy winning writing/production teammates Sanders and Ramsey, never does the material feel worn or overdone. “Sunday Kind of Love” becomes a languid liquid of longing, with Leela James opining against the window on a rain soaked day. “Nobody Loves You Like Me” becomes an Ike and Tina revue of rolling shoulders and bar room funk. “At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” may be the only traditional treatments of Etta James’s material and even they have unique vibes as doo wop duets of lovers singing to one another instead of flat-footed declarations to the world. Shannon Sanders shows up as a fine duet partner for both with plenty of Southern grit. Together their chemistry and soul stirring mic trades may be the opening for the next R&B duo the game’s been missing.
There literally is not a missed opportunity or a bum note in the whole project. Short, volcanic, and totally uncompromising, much like its mother, the project leaves listeners wanting more and pressing repeat again and again. Etta would be proud. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson