Etta James

The Heart of a Woman

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There's no denying that Etta James is a powerhouse, one of the finest blues singers of the 20th century. Perhaps that's what makes her latter-day records so frustrating: The talent is still apparent and abundant, but the albums themselves are unsatisfying. All the ingredients are in the right place, but something went slightly awry during the execution. After all, Heart of a Woman is a great idea for an album. James chose 11 love songs from her favorite female singers -- Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, and Carmen McRae -- augmenting the album with a new version of her signature song, "At Last." She has recorded several of these songs before (including Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed," which inexplicably became a standard for both her and McRae), but the difference with Heart of a Woman is the context. Here, they're put in a smooth jazz setting, masterminded by James, who has producer credit. No matter how well she sings the songs here -- and she still possesses an exceptionally strong voice, robust and filled with passion -- the well-scrubbed, glossy surfaces on the record keeps it from being engaging. It's not bad listening, it just never has the emotional impact James intended it to have. At times, it's hard not to wish that she worked with a producer who brought her back to the organic sound of her classic '50s and '60s sessions, but James has been pursuing this smoothed-out style for a decade now. It's clear that this is what she wants to do. She still sounds good, and that means her latter-day albums are listenable -- but they don't resonate like the best of her records.

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