Roots soul singer Leela James has worked with some of the greatest soul artists, including mentor James Brown. Recalling the grittiness of Mavis Staples and the neo-soul sound of Angie Stone, she gained notice for her debut album, 2005's A Change Is Gonna Come. Boasting producers Kanye West, Wyclef Jean, and Raphael Saadiq, the album received airplay and a promotional push from VH1.
James's latest CD, Let's Do It Again, greatly varies in quality. The album has a loose, unrehearsed quality, as if she and her band decided to record their favorite tunes live, with no overdubbing. While James possesses a gritty, funky voice, she does not have the same range as Chaka Khan and Jennifer Holiday. She shows good taste in the material she chose for this album, a collection of some of her favorite old school soul hits.
However, James's faithful version of "Clean Up Woman" won't make you forget Betty Wright's tough original. Likewise, her cover of Womack & Womack's classic "Baby I'm Scared of You" lacks the fun of the original, particularly the "battle of the sexes" section at the end ("Baby let me soothe ya," "Uh, uh, I need a little more"). The title track, meant as a tribute to the Staple Singers, simply cannot match the rawness and sensuality of Mavis Staples' legendary performance. Let's face it: no one can listen to James's version of "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" without comparing her to the Godfather of Soul. Who can possibly match James Brown?
James fares much better when choosing lesser-known soul material. She evokes the longing and pain of Angela Bofill's "I Try," a jazzy saxophone solo adding to the tune's beauty.
Swtiching to disco, she does the late Phyllis Hyman proud on "You Know How to Love Me," staying faithful to the original tune. A few times she lets her blues vocals shine on more rock-infused cuts such as the Rolling Stones "Miss You" and Bobby Womack's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," the latter featuring her raspy, funky voice to great effect.
Finally, her cover of Al Green's "Simply Beautiful" effectively evokes the raw sexuality of the song, with James's voice floating over soft drums, bass, and lovely guitar riffs. This is a stripped-down performance that matches the ballad's intimate mood.
The highlight of Let's Do It Again, however, is her moving version of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." The massive 1984 hit suffered from overexposure, ultimately becoming a symbol of saccharine lyrics and overemotional singing. James retools the song, emphasizing its gospel leanings. With a group of excellent background singers, she draws out the spiritual meaning of the lyrics, ending the song by demonstrating her church-infused vocals. Here she puts her gospel, blues, and soul influences to great use.
Overall, James selects terrific material, but mostly shines on the lesser-known cuts. Tackling James Brown, Mavis Staples, and old school acts such as Womack & Womack is risky business, and just invites constant comparisons to the originals. Only a voice with wide range can do justice to these musicians. Instead, her deeply personal interpretations of criminally overlooked artists such as Phyllis Hyman and Angela Bofill, and her retooling of Foreigner are the true gems on Let's Do It Again.