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Etta James' "Love's Been Rough On Me" and Ottmar Liebert's "Leaning Into the Night."

By Michael Henningsen

DECEMBER 15, 1997: 

Etta James Love's Been Rough On Me (Private Music)

Blues artists, among other things, have long had a penchant for telling us just how bad it all is with their album titles--often sentence-long commentaries on the varying degrees of "blue" that await the listener. Quite often, though, such album titles reveal little more than the sentiment that defines the music. But there's not a blues artist on the planet who can claim the breathtaking hardship that Etta James can. Her new record, Love's Been Rough On Me, might have just as well been titled Life's Been Rough On Me. While the album chronicles her various trials and tribulations with candor, it also does much to let us know that she's still very much in the game. And without much use for metaphor, James' songs rise above, emerging as detailed stories of her life, her loves and a woman's blues.

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938, James was a gospel prodigy, bringing the house down in her Baptist church choir and on local radio stations before she was a teenager. During her long career, James adopted the style of the times: the R&B and doo wop of the mid-'50s through the jazz of the late-'50s and early-'60s to the soul of the late-'60s. Along the way, the boisterous Miss Peaches has fallen in and out of love more times than any mortal should be able to survive, along with numerous drug addictions and career dips. But James never let the lean years get to her. The records that came as a result of such periods in her life remain some of the best blues vocal recordings to date.

Having embraced Southern soul early in her career, James has always used the inflection as a stylistic cornerstone. Her voice has deepened over the years, but it's also become more inspirational. On her latest record, she employs as much of her gospel past as she does her own unique blues perspective. Love's Been Rough On Me, with few exceptions, is a pristine collection of soulful ballads that gently tear through the protective veil of denial that keeps all our hearts blessedly intact. "Cry Like a Rainy Day" is brutally apologetic and self-effacing until one realizes that James is telling, not asking, for forgiveness. Similarly, the title track leaves little doubt that James has only herself to blame for love lost, but she simultaneously dares anyone to sympathize. Some of the rockers, particularly "I Can Give You Everything," hint of the Etta James of the mid-'70s, when her blues was rock-based and mirrored her stage persona more closely.

Regardless of what she sings, though, the miracle is in the method. There's not a more captivating voice in use when it comes to blues balladeering. And for James, Love's Been Rough On Me is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence begun long ago. When it's all over, one can only assume that a new chapter is about to begin. !!!! 1/2

Ottmar Liebert Leaning Into the Night (Sony Classical)

You're probably expecting one of those "local guy makes good" reviews. Sorry. You might also expect a shimmering foray by Santa Fe's resident "flamenco-for-crystal healers" into works by Puccini and Ravel. Ditto. Oh, the compositions are there alright, but Liebert's new age-fueled style doesn't mesh as often as it should, making Leaning Into the Night more akin to a recording of a talented guitarist soloing over classical music being played on the stereo. The five original compositions on the record lean toward more standard Liebert fare, although they are embedded in lush orchestral arrangements that can, at times, be distracting rather than complementary.

The point of the record seems to have been to select compositions not traditionally associated with guitar or flamenco in an attempt to create something refreshing. Instead, the record sounds forced and unlikely. And who thought the addition of a wah wah pedal to a Puccini aria was a good --Michael Henningsen

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