Album Review

Etta James - Self-Titled

Etta James - self-titled

Generally panned at the time of its release, Etta James' 1973 self-titled album for Chess comes off somewhat better today. Perhaps we're more accustomed to the concept of a raging R&B star paired with a hit-minded rock producer, in this case Three Dog Night's Gabriel Mekler. Or maybe James' current public acceptance has encouraged us to look at her uneven Chess output with greater reflection. In any case, the album, while far from perfect, remains a fascinating snapshot of just where the capricious singer was, emotionally and musically, during the early '70s, a time when she was finally beginning to kick the addictions that had constrained her for more than a decade. "God's Song" is the album's unforgettable moment. Darkly cynical, Randy Newman's paean to a cruel deity who laughs at human suffering would seem like the last thing an ex-church singer would choose to cover -- or maybe not. James' voice is a tight, vinegary sneer as she sings "That's why I love mankind," casting off the words as a sly taunt. But there's also something pleading in her delivery -- it comes through in her enumeration of woes from the faithful -- that points to deeper struggles with belief and personal responsibility. Today, after 25 years of AIDS ("a plague is on the world"), and as we're embedded in war, James' caustic performance has never felt more relevant. It's like the angry flip side to "At Last". Part of the enjoyment of James' Chess work is listening to her go head-to-head with unsympathetic production elements, wrestling them into submission. In that respect, this disc is no different: Jimmie Haskell's strings come in at just the moments you'd expect, and get louder (with full complement of brass) exactly when you think they will. But none of this prevents James from tackling Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low" and Otis Redding's "Just One More Day", or putting her own sly imprint on Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On". If a soul singer's greatness lies in articulating the ineffable, finding new ways to express the joys and sorrows at the root of human experience, then Etta's in a class of her own.