Leela James - My Soul (2010)

Leela James
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Leela James opens her third studio album, My Soul, with a Gerrard Baker production (Toni Braxton, Masta Ace) declaring "I'm Not New To This" with her requisite funky soul and something of a braggart's rap. Indeed, she's not. Ten years before her debut project, A Change Is Gonna Come, announced the scrappy soul belter to the world, a teenage Leela was being featured on ‘90s soundtracks like Jason's Lyric and doing demo and session work for L.A. producers. In the years since, the gritty-voiced heir to Betty "Clean-Up Woman" Wright has been grinding hard to deliver that classic soul album of yesteryear, without necessarily going for the hard-core retro soul like Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings or Ryan Shaw.

Leela James opens her third studio album, My Soul, with a Gerrard Baker production (Toni Braxton, Masta Ace) declaring "I'm Not New To This" with her requisite funky soul and something of a braggart's rap. Indeed, she's not. Ten years before her debut project, A Change Is Gonna Come, announced the scrappy soul belter to the world, a teenage Leela was being featured on ‘90s soundtracks like Jason's Lyric and doing demo and session work for L.A. producers. In the years since, the gritty-voiced heir to Betty "Clean-Up Woman" Wright has been grinding hard to deliver that classic soul album of yesteryear, without necessarily going for the hard-core retro soul like Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings or Ryan Shaw. The results have been a consistent homage to the legends of Stax and Atlantic -- even a highly enjoyable covers album last year where she sang the greats directly -- but not necessarily a new sound from Ms. James. On James' debut disc for Stax, My Soul, producers Carvin & Ivan and Kadis & Sean use occasional hip hop production touches to try to change James' habit of looking over her shoulder, but this is largely a solid, consistently traditional soul affair from start to finish.

James is joined in her tribute to ‘70s soul by three producers who deliver the goods for her: Steven Supe White on "The Fact Is," Chucky Thompson on the Raheem DeVaughn duet "Mr. Incredible, Mrs. Incredible," and Gerrard Baker on the best written of the collection, the single "Tell Me You Love Me." Penned by James, Andrea Martin (Melanie Fiona, Angie Stone) and "Commissioner" Gordon Williams (Lauyrn Hill, Amy Winehouse), the easy breezy soul of "Tell Me You Love Me" reminds us how it was the songs as much as the voices that made the stars that James admires. The cinematic "The Fact Is" should follow up the stage set by Baker's sound foundation for radio, given James' infectious chorus and emotional delivery, and White's firm production hand ensuring that the vocals, arrangement and production nicely marry one another to create something special. Raheem nicely matches James on their duet, though the pairing never quite raises to classic status. Overall, these old soul ballads and grooves stand-out on the strength of their compositions and James's comfort with them, resulting in a collection in which much is strong, but not notably refreshing.

Philly producers Carvin and Ivan (Musiq, Jaheim,  Jill Scott),  attempt to deliver James a couple of contemporary tracks with the hip hop flavored "It's Over" and the moody "If It's Wrong." So do Kadis & Sean on the string and horn head-nodder "So Cold." In lyric and arrangement, these warm electronic music productions keep Leela steady, growling, and emotionally sangin' plenty of grown-woman blues but don't push her to her prime performance. It would be interesting to see the producers stretch and flesh out James a bit more, to try to better couple their styles with hers for a little magic here too. 

Fans of churchy gut-bucket vocals will enjoy James confident leads and call and response harmonies on Ray Murray's "I Want It All," a cut which metaphorically sums up what James wants from a mature marketplace that claims to want the old, but is ever-changing and forward moving in its thinking and purchases. Both James and that mature market she's targeting want to re-capture the great feelings the sounds of the past delivered, without really heading musically into the future. But artistic relevancy is important too (not to mention commercial viability) as is forward momentum, and while many soul fans kavetch about "the new," inventive contemporary artists are always discovering new ways to musically touch listeners' sweet spot. How to create something warmly organic and yet modern, but that still resonates in the soul, is a conundrum James doesn't quite solve with this pleasant enough set. There will always be a niche for a talent as incredible as James', but whether the wild-haired beaut can have her cake and eat it by so often looking back remains to be seen. For now, her listeners can enjoy more of the soul they already know.  Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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