Etta James possesses one of the R&B voices, and she has been pushing it past its limits since her classic sides for Modern—”Roll With Me Henry,” “Crazy Feeling” — and her teenage years as an opening act for Little Richard. Her masterful Sixties recordings for Chess, preserved on the essential Peaches, became more and more infrequent as drugs took their toll. Last year she bounced back with Etta James, singing as superbly and soulfully as ever, and gave several of Randy Newman’s quirky compositions their most memorable performances. Closer finds her working with the same producer, Gabriel Mekler, and once again her churchy, sobbing style is well showcased. In fact, its dimensions have never been more fully revealed. On the entirely wordless “Feeling Uneasy,” she moans and scats her way through a series of rich changes, throwing in breathtaking descending arpeggios here, laying into a chord and spreading it out there, pouring out a torrent of sound. This one ranks with Aretha’s recent “Oh Baby” as a masterpiece of secularized spirit-singing.
But Etta’s truth, like Aretha’s, has always been at the mercy of the producers and arrangers she works with, and Gabriel Mekler’s eclecticism imparts a curious tension to Come a Little Closer. When Mekler is good, as he is when he inserts an out-of-tempo transitional figure into the opening minutes of “Mama Told Me,” or when he takes his time building the sultry band track up to Etta’s entrance on “Out on the Street, Again,” he is superb. When he is bad — as when synthesizer and percussion overwhelm Etta on “You Give Me What I Want”—a lot of talent goes to waste. On Closer‘s second side, a kind of suite, he tries everything from a “St. Louis Blues” redolent of Bessie Smith to a heavy-handed Pointer Sisters cop on “Gonna Have Some Fun Tonight” to a reworking of John Kay’s “Power Play.” Etta plays freely with the blues and comes closer than anyone could have imagined to making it sound fresh, but you can only ride a war-horse so far and her victory over the tune is essentially Pyrrhic. “Come a Little Closer” and “Out on the Street, Again” are first class pop — more modest in intent and more successful. Another Randy Newman opus, “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield,” is spare and powerful.
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Closer is excruciatingly uneven and at times miraculously satisfying. Etta’s heretofore unsuspected abilities as a jazz singer are worthy of further exploration, hopefully in a context that isn’t quite as hokey. There are a couple of possible hit singles. And there is one hell of a voice.