Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Etta JAMES - Love's Been Rough On Me 1997
Ms. James's acknowledgements in the booklet of this 1997 release are gracious in standard liner-note fashion; she thanks her collaborators and significant others and concludes, "You can call it country, you can call it country blues, you can call it country soul -- call it whatever you like. It is just me. Another one of my dreams fulfilled. I've always wanted to do a country record and here it is." Perhaps she was diplomatically holding back, or perhaps she truly felt this way but soured on the record within the next year, but in a 1998 ROLLING STONE interview, she bitterly disowned this recording. She criticized everything from the production to the photo on the cover (to my nearly ten-years-past recollection, her descriptive phrase was something like "a picture of me with a shawl around my neck, looking like some sad old woman who's about to go make spaghetti"). She seemed disappointed and resentful that the label initially had supported her in her desire to make a country record, but then backed away from that concept in the event (more below on the specifics of this).
So, be aware that by recommending this so strongly, I am putting myself in opposition to the artist herself. But artists are not always the best judge of their own work; sometimes one can get a clearer view from not standing so close. I wonder if Ms. James's opinion of LOVE'S BEEN ROUGH ON ME would be more generous today, if she were able to hear it as the record it is, rather than the one that fell short of what she had in mind. I have a feeling that what she envisioned (or whatever the aural equivalent of "envisioned" would be) was more along the lines of what Solomon Burke was allowed to do on his 2006 masterpiece NASHVILLE -- an aged but still potent R&B voice that exudes hard-won wisdom, confronting music of an unabashedly rustic character in both composition and execution. It is true that the country influence on Ms. James's album, when not absent entirely (vigorous rock-and-soul jams like "Love It Or Leave It Alone" and "I Can Give You Everything"; a heartfelt cover of Otis Redding's "I've Been Lovin' You Too Long"), is subtle at best. There are a few song structures so purely Nashville as to be identifiable as such no matter how they're decked out ("Done In The Dark," which she and one of her sons cowrote; "If I Had Any Pride Left At All"), and a fleeting guitar twang or underpinning of steel ("The Rock"; the title song), but the greater portion of the album is a slick and soulful affair. The inclusion of a horn section, over the singer's objection, seems to have been a particularly sore spot. If it's "Etta goes country," it's decidedly heavier on the "Etta" than the "country."
And yet, ten years on, this sounds not only better than ever, but (to me) like the jewel of what could be called the third phase of Ms. James's recording career, the one that began in 1994 with her first release on Private Music, and continues in her present association with RCA. In this period she has benefited from a kind of support that is no doubt the envy of many less fortunate contemporaries. She has been staggeringly prolific, recording Tin Pan Alley standards (four discs!), rock, blues, the inevitable holiday album, even easy-listening pop. But for all the first-class production values and the admirably broad artistic palette of her many releases, few of them have really "scored." There is no doubting Ms. James's sincere affection for the music of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, and their like, but three albums of standards with pianist Cedar Walton's jazz combo ('94's MYSTERY LADY, '95's TIME AFTER TIME, and '01's BLUE GARDENIA) demonstrate conclusively that such music does not play to her strengths as an improviser or interpreter (she has more in common as a song stylist with Aretha Franklin and Dinah Washington, both of whom could also sound out of place on Tin Pan Alley, than with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, who thrived there). An attempt at still more of the same, this time in heavily synthesized, "modern" clothing, '99's HEART OF A WOMAN, is not only the worst of her Private albums but one of the worst things I have ever heard from any major artist: unlistenable. LIFE, LOVE AND THE BLUES ('98) and MATRIARCH OF THE BLUES ('00) are more pertinent, but still leave an aftertaste of the generic. They're agreeable yet stubbornly unmemorable attempts at recapturing a classic Etta James formula.
Not so with LOVE'S BEEN ROUGH ON ME. For once, whatever her misgivings about what was done with her original concept, she seems to this listener to have everything going for her: songwriting that is consistently strong; a unified theme and atmosphere that pervades the entire set (I can only describe this as a sort of "nocturnal" quality -- everything here, whether a ballad or an uptempo number, has the feel of a late-night rumination from someone who has accepted her insomnia); a style of music that is right in her comfort zone as an interpreter; and instrumental support that's not only alert and responsive but assertive enough to challenge her, to good effect. She gets into a hell-for-leather duel with whichever of her electric guitarists features on "Love It Or Leave It Alone"; and the way the ensemble coalesces and swells behind her whenever the "b" section of "Cry Like A Rainy Day" comes around ("I've made some wrong moves..." "Remember these arms..." et cetera) is genuinely thrilling. Finally, do not be surprised if, like me, you come to consider her performance of the standout track, "If I Had Any Pride Left At All," as affecting a ballad performance as she has ever given on record. No small compliment when one's discography includes "At Last" (well, yes, but try to remember how you felt about it before it was flogged to death in every TV show or movie that has a slow dance) and "Lovin' Arms." For all that the voice has darkened and wizened (which she uses to exquisite effect in the rueful I'm-leaving-you opener, "The Rock"), her singing here is far more remarkable for the power it retains than for anything
it's given up.
By Todd KAY.
Etta James- (Vocals);
Don Potter- (Acoustic Guitar);
Dann Huff, Josh Sklair, Brent Rowan- (Electric Guitar);
Paul Franklin- (Steel Guitar);
Joe McGlohon, Jim Horn, Sam Levine , Chris McDonald, Mike Haynes- (Horns);
Barry Beckett, Steve Nathan- (Keyboards);
Eddie Bayers- (Drums);
Terry McMillan- (Percussion);
Curtis Young, Dennis Wilson , Donna McElroy, John Wesley Ryles, Vicki Hampton, Louis Dean Nunley, Yvonne Hodges- (Background Vocals).
01. Rock, The 03:33
02. Cry Like a Rainy Day 05:21
03. Love's Been Rough on Me 03:09
04. Love It or Leave It Alone 05:28
05. Don't Touch Me 03:57
06. Hold Me (Just a Little Longer Tonight) 03:47
07. If I Had Any Pride Left at All 03:49
08. I Can Give You Everything 03:15
09. I've Been Loving You Too Long 04:20
10. Done in the Dark 04:19