Matriarch Of The Blues

After detours into jazz, pop and country, Etta James is back in the smoking eye of an R&B maelstrom, singing with controlled fury and vinegary bite. Surrounding this queen bee of the blues are two fresh princes: sons Donto and Sametto, who produced and engineered, and played drums and bass, respectively. The young bloods balance classic and contemporary approaches, leaving Mama free to breathe fire into an intriguing mix of tunes. An adroit interpreter, James invests Bob Dylan's cranky "Gotta Serve Somebody" with the air of Old Testament-style authority it demands, while the Rolling Stones' bubbly disco-era hit "Miss You" gets slowed down to a sensual simmer that highlights the heartbreak at its core. The album really finds its rhythm in James' takes on such R&B nuggets as O.V. Wright's salty "Don't Let My Baby Ride," Ray Charles' lowdown "Come Back Baby" and Otis Redding's playful "Hawg for Ya." The singer is given ample space to state her piece, with many songs running in the five-to-seven-minute range. A solid return to roots, Matriarch of the Blues finds Etta James reclaiming her throne — and defying anyone to knock her off it.

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