Album Review

Etta James - Love's Been Rough on Me

Etta James - Love's Been Rough on Me

There will probably be claims that Etta James is making her "country move" here, but in truth, her infatuation with Nashville goes back to the early '60s, when she recorded her first singles on Music Row, and a historic live album, Etta James Rocks the House, there in 1963. Brenda Lee has sung her songs, and James has covered tunes by Billy Sherrill, Hank Williams and Tracy Nelson. Seven-Year Itch, her 1988 comeback album, was recorded there. At its best, Love's Been Rough on Me, which reunites her with Barry Beckett (who produced Seven-Year Itch and 1990's Stickin' To My Guns), takes us to that remote area where blues and country music cross paths. Russell Smith and Jim Varsos' "The Rock" is a good example, its soulful blues ambiance bolstered by the restrained instrumentation and quiet gospel harmonies. There's a shiver of Otis Redding's classic '60s recordings in her immaculate rendering of "I've Been Lovin' You Too Long". In several places, Beckett shows a tendency to turn up Josh Sklar's lead guitar in the mix, and his annoying rock edge doesn't fit the bluesy mood of the material, drowning out the subtleties of Hank Cochran's "Don't Touch Me" and overwhelming even James' vocals on "Love It Or Leave It Alone". But elsewhere, especially on the ballads, Love's Been Rough on Me is Etta James at her best. She steals "If I Had Any Pride Left At All" away from John Berry and perfectly captures the sad resignation of Gretchen Peters' title song ("have mercy, baby, love's been rough on me") like it was written specifically for a soul star whose life has become the stuff of legend.