Etta James “The Dreamer” (Verve Forecast 06025278311893)
By Sir Shambling
THE LAST STUDIO RECORDINGS BY A GREAT SINGER
Groove Me; Champagne & Wine; Dreamer; Welcome to the Jungle; Misty Blue; Boondocks; Cigarettes & Coffee; In the Evening; Too Tired; That's the Chance You Take; Let Me Down Easy.
This valedictory set from one of R & B greatest stars presents a classic heart/head dilemma for any reviewer. How is it possible to ignore the huge amount of wonderful music Etta made in her long and oh so distinguished career when listening to the eleven tracks here? How much allowance should be made for the terrible state of health she was in when they were recorded? Well the good news is that “The Dreamer” is a lot better than anybody has any right to expect, a class or two above most of her work in the last decade or so, not another “Tell Mama” but it is certainly up there with “Seven Year Itch” and “The Right Time”.
Most of the tracks will be pretty familiar to most soul fans, two Otis Redding covers, Etta’s take on classics by King Floyd, Dorothy Moore and Bobby Bland and one apiece from Ray Charles and Little Milton. Blues enthusiasts will also recognise a couple of West Coast items on the track listing. And it won’t come as any surprise that these recognisable items are by far the best cuts on the set. But prior acquaintance is a double edged sword. It invites comparison with the originals of course, and draws attention to a possible lack of invention on the part of the artist and the producers. The real point here is that to many of the people at whom this set is aimed, and who will buy it, these tracks will not be the old friends that they will be to readers of this page.
Etta has done her best to overcome these problems firstly by surrounding herself with a very good set of musicians, and secondly by turning out a set that hasn’t had too much of a rock bias in the mix, something that has certainly dogged almost all her releases of the last 20 years – if not longer – as she repositioned herself into the lucrative mainstream rock market and away from her traditional soul fanbase. And Etta’s recognition that she no longer has that almost frightening intensity in her powerhouse vocals has been turned into a strength by avoiding dance tracks in favour of concentrating on downbeat material. And it is also to her great credit that by recognising the restrictions of her own vocal range, and using subtlety of phrase, tone and the terrific sense of timing that a lifetime's experience brings instead, “The Dreamer” comes across as a thoughtful, really well constructed set of songs, sung by a master craftswoman (hello Mavis Staples).
I yield to nobody in my devotion to Otis Redding, but Etta’s “Cigarettes And Coffee” rivals his for quiet desperation, her voice husky and regretful. And “Champagne & Wine”, long one of my fave Otis R cuts, is full of wistful longing. but if it's hard to get near the Big O doubling Bobby Bland is nigh impossible. So although the title track is atmospheric the guitar laden arrangement just doesn't do it for me at all. On the other hand, “Misty Blue” is a standout, a song here really well arranged and with a hint of the blues rather than Dot Moore’s country soul. That feel is continued on Ray’s fine ballad “In The Evening” which has just a touch or two of Etta’s old vocal fire. But she saves the best till last. The 7 minute plus of Little Milton superb “Let Me Down Easy” is a showstopper – quite brilliant in it’s deliberation, careful horn charts and a beautifully hoarse Etta vocal. The way she groans her way through the lengthy rap is a tour de force which brings back memories of much happier days. A fitting finale to her music and no mistake.
Buying this CD doesn’t just represent a homage to her talent, or a memento to her sad passing, it is also, fortunately, something that can be safely done on musical grounds as well. One of the best new recordings of last year and pretty much an essential purchase.