First seeing some of the song titles on the new Etta James album, Matriarch of the Blues, was cringe-inducing ó covers of "Hound Dog," "Try a Little Tenderness," Bob Dylanís "Gotta Serve Somebody" and the Rolling Stonesí "Miss You," among others. But the albumís consistent listenability was a big surprise: James doesnít try to copy or go over the top on any of the songs. What could have been a Las Vegas lounge experience turned out to be a slow-burning, funky blues evening with the one and only Etta James.
Thanks to her sons (and producers), drummer Donto and bassist Sametto, the songs are laid over a strong groove which complements Jamesí smoldering vocals. The seemingly-obvious cover choices are pleasantly laid back: "Hound Dog" is not done ala Big Mama Thornton or Elvis Presley, "Miss You" is slowed way down and she does not try to out-sing Otis Redding on "Try a Little Tenderness." She slaps some funk into Credence Clearwater Revivalís "Born on the Bayou" and adds some big-city horns to "Gotta Serve Somebody." Other pleasantly surprising choices here are Al Greenís "Rhymes" and Otis Reddingís "Hawg for You," both wrapped around Ms. Jamesís voice.
Matriarch was released the same year as the Etta James Chess Box. This makes it easy for some folks to listen to her current material and think, "Man, why canít she sound like her Chess recordings again?" While James has experimented with her sound over the last decade or so, with some good results and some flawed, Matriarch is not an Etta James experiment but another chapter in the Etta James career anthology which began with her smash 1955 single "The Wallflower." Itís one of the most pleasant surprises heard this year.
ó Matthew Socey