Leela James - Fall For You (2014)

Leela James
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Leela James latest album, Fall For You, sneaks up on you and grows in depth, movement, and invitation the longer the project plays and the more frequently you play it. The initial thought on the first few cuts, especially on the first listen, was that the project was beginning solid enough but was essentially routine, with only the Anthony Hamilton duet not playing old school R&B by-the-numbers at the outset of Fall For You. Then midway through the fifth solo project by the latest cast member of R&B Divas of L.A., the disc opens up and becomes an enveloping experience of exquisitely performed soulful delights, delivering one of the better releases—if not the best—of James’ catalog of classic and Southern soul.

Leela James latest album, Fall For You, sneaks up on you and grows in depth, movement, and invitation the longer the project plays and the more frequently you play it. The initial thought on the first few cuts, especially on the first listen, was that the project was beginning solid enough but was essentially routine, with only the Anthony Hamilton duet not playing old school R&B by-the-numbers at the outset of Fall For You. Then midway through the fifth solo project by the latest cast member of R&B Divas of L.A., the disc opens up and becomes an enveloping experience of exquisitely performed soulful delights, delivering one of the better releases—if not the best—of James’ catalog of classic and Southern soul.

Though she hails out of L.A., James’ brassy pipes inspire comparisons to the Muscle Shoals and rougher hewn Chicago and Detroit blues-inspired singers of yesteryear, like a love child of the recently departed Bobby Womack, Johnny Taylor, Mavis Staples or Esther Phillips, James belts hard and often. Since her 2005 debut, A Change Is Gonna Come, James has played off those comparisons and embraced her rootsy legacy by often covering legends from Sam Cooke and Betty Wright to James Brown and Womack and Womack, even dedicating a whole album to Etta James on James’s last foray, the exceptional Loving You More…In The Spirit of Etta James.  

She generally shines on this material, giving license to how often she’s gone to this well. The challenge has come in developing a catalog of originals that establishes Leela James’s own legacy as a unique artist and not just one who sounds like someone your mama or grandmamma would love. Far less surefooted on the originals from My Soul and A Change Is Gonna Come, James tries her hand again at penning and working songs that are all her own, even if in production, composition, and arrangement all of the songs strongly nod at the techniques and approaches of the past. The new material on Fall For You works far better here than any of James’ past efforts at creating her own lane without leaning on the classics for support.

br> As usual, James’ alto is pristine in its grit and fiery delivery, full of the sultry and the self-righteous. Whether live or in the studio, the smoldering James’ Texarkana voice has been her greatest asset, and that is no less true this go-round. The biggest difference is that outside of a handful of largely forgettable cuts, the material rises to meet James’s exceptional instrument. A blues funk number heavy on percussive and electrosoul elements, “Do Me Right,” with its demanding lyrics and hand-on-hip attitude, is an example of the kind of material that illuminates the strength of James’ artistry.

Smooth jazz, urban adult contemporary rhythm sections directly from the mid-tempo grooves from the late ‘80s is the drive on “Set Me Free” and “Stay With Me,” UAC radio-ready nostalgias for those who miss the early jams of Cherrelle, Karyn White, and Angela Winbush in their prime. For ballads, a perfect “Everything” delves into the ‘70s blue lights vault to excavate a pelvis-to-pelvis slow jam whose drum taps highlight just when to dip that hip and sway your partner just right. With its seductively declarative statements, hip-hop drum samples, and electronic effects, “So Good” might be the most modern cut in an album that definitely aims to make the classic contemporary; it’s also one of the project’s strongest.

The run of strong to exceptional material is capped off with a simple piano ballad that is the project single: “Fall For You” is a polished tearjerker about the internal fears and doubts the brew in the midst of falling in love. It gives Leela James something her career has sorely been lacking: a signature song. Mission accomplished.

The rest of the project, from “Save Me” to “Who’s Gonna Love You More,” isn’t bad and James sings her face off, especially the latter; they just don’t offer much in the way of the new or special from James, coming across as album filler. However, the nucleus of this ten-song project is airtight in its offerings and packs a wallop that hits harder with time. This is an album that begs for repeat play and appreciation. It also proves once and for all that James is more than a great cover singer, live performer, and soon-to-be reality TV star. She’s a consummate artist in her own right, and one worthy of praise. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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