Leela James is in your face. Her vocals feel like they have you gripped by the collar, much like her greatest inspiration, iconic soul titan Etta James (from whom Leela adopted her stage surname). So it only makes sense that her fourth album (second for Shanachie Records), Loving You More… In the Spirit of Etta James, is dedicated to the legend.
Produced in Nashville by Grammy-winning producers Shannon Sanders and Drew Ramsey, Loving You More features a creative mix of revamped Etta songs as well as original material performed “in the spirit” of her stylings.
We’re invited into the emotional maze this album creates with the declaration “Soul Will Never Die,” a swaying intro that drives home the purpose — a message to Etta saying, “your spirit lives on…” Leela’s take on “Something’s Got A Hold on Me” is clap-stomping Pop-Gospel-Funk. As with the roller-skating disco, soul-stepping energy displayed on the mesmerizing “I’m Loving You More” it’s clear that one of Leela’s goals is to make us dance.
Leela’s Hip-Hop sensibility is keen on her super-smart version of “It Hurts Me So Much,” a pounding bounce balanced on a piano riff made famous on rap classic “Still D.R.E..” Leela’s fierce warble is just as moody here as the late Ms. James’. You feel nose-to-nose with her as she lets loose Lenny Williams-inspired ad-libs over what’s just as much an indictment of a wayward lover as it is of her own devastated reaction to it.
Leela rocks out on her sped-up version of “Damn Your Eyes.” She’s channeling Tina Turner right along with Etta James on this track. There’s a sexy rawness, an ageless magnetism that makes us want to surrender, too.
On “Nobody Loves You Like Me” and “Old School Kind of Love” Nashville takes the lead, with the marriage of country and funk showcased seamlessly.
The decision to completely re-imagine two of Ms. James’ most popular cuts as duets with Sanders was a sound one. “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Leela-style, is a sumptuous love song, a lover-to-lover conversation that will surely end in make-up sex instead of the gut-wrenching blues anthem so many love. Leela’s version of “At Last” is a smoldering slow-grind. We are voyeurs peeking in on the make-up sex conjured in the previous duet. Bumping and grinding is a sweaty through line all over Loving You More. “I Wanna Ta-Ta You Baby” on this album feels like being pressed up against the wall in a smoky basement party by your crush. Hot.
The most adventurous ode to Etta is Leela’s futuristic “Sunday Kind of Love.” The trippy groove floats beautifully along, just as much submarine as it is spaceship; a refreshing interpretation.
Leela James is at her most polished on Loving You More; a testament to her growth as an artist but also to the vision of Sanders and Ramsey’s high-sheen arrangements.
Loving You More is a gleaming dedication. One of which Etta would be proud.