First posted on Mark Is Cranky:
There's a problem with the production values on some modern pop music recordings: too much production, not enough value. Layer upon layer upon layers of samples, backing tracks and ProTools-tweezed nothing.
To be honest though, this problem of content-free popular music isn't new. Only the 'coating' has changed. Recently we've had Britney Spears and various boy-bands. Going back a quarter-century, there were the Bay City Rollers and Shaun Cassidy. The big difference between the two eras? All of the extra studio tracks full of digital schmutz. Things in common? Way too much VerseChorusVerseChorusVerseChorusChorusChorusFadeout.
What's interesting here is that heavy use of studio wizardry does not doom a recording to failure. If the performer and production team start with some decent ideas then there's a good chance they can rise above. I'm thinking of artists like Missy Elliot ("Work It" from Under Construction was killer) and Lauryn Hill, who made those silky beats seem so organic.
Leela James is going straight onto my list of artists who've struck that delicate balance. Funk. Soul. Blues. Hip-hop. Gospel...and one smokin' voice. If ya let this stuff wash over you, you just might be transported back to the days of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan and Isaac Hayes. That soul-drenched atmosphere is brought to you by a team of producers including Wyclef Jean, Kanye West (does that guy ever sleep?!), Saadiq, Chucky Thompson, James Poysner and Robert Randolph. The overall sound is amazingly cohesive considering how many hands and ears were in the pot.
A Change Is Gonna Come sets the mood with "Music", a soulful plea for a return to what's really important in music (and it's not videos, thongs, bitchez and ho's). Nice to see that sentiment realized with such a rock-solid groove.
But hey, Leela's no prude. Skip ahead to "Soul Food", where both kinds of sustenance sound mighty tasty.
For me, the high point of the record is "When You Love Somebody". The slow blues groove burns with intensity as Leela turns up the volume (emotional and otherwise) to celebrate and lament the things we all do for love.
There are a couple of bold moves on A Change Is Gonna Come that can't be ignored. The first is a cover of No Doubt's "Don't Speak". When I first saw that title on the track list, it made me a little apprehensive. But as I made my way through the record for the first time (discovering James' voice) I actually began to look forward to it. Leela makes no attempt to eclipse Gwen's iconic performance. Instead, she delivers a sultry rendition that, given Stefani's love of dance music, would surely cause a wry smile to cross her face. And yes, the title track does mean that Leela James took on the Sam Cooke classic. Her love of that famous Cooke melody is obvious as she weaves her voice into it. I couldn't help but sway back 'n forth just a little. Great and powerful stuff. After hearing all of this, it comes as no surprise that James has opened for groups like the Black Eyed Peas, Stephanie Mills, Robert Randolph and Macy Gray.
A Change Is Gonna Come closes closes with "Long Time Coming", a burning rock-steady groove that indeed strikes the balance. Just enough production and definitely enough value...almost more than I can stand!
If I was the kind of reviewer who gave out numerical ratings, I'd have to give this one the maximum value. It's that good.