LEELA JAMES: My Soul (Label: Stax)


Leela James burst onto the scene in 2005 with her debut album ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. That LP revealed a proper old fashioned soul singer with- even then – enough confidence not just to tackle Sam Cooke’s masterpiece, but to name the whole damn album after it. Her follow up on Shanachie was a little less emotional but now, on ‘My Soul’, she’s back to her gritty, feisty, passionate best – and , because of that, it’s massively appropriate that the album is out on the revamped Stax label. Leela, it’s clear, even after just a cursory listen, is worthy to carry the torch previously borne with so much commitment by the likes of Shirley Brown, Ruby Johnson, Mable John, Carla Thomas, Lynda Lyndell, Jean Knight, Judy Clay and Mavis Staples. That said Ms. James and her various producers haven’t sought to replicate the sounds of McLemore Avenue. They’ve retained all the soulful passion that was the Stax byword and married it to newer sensibilities. Musically they’ve take some of the best ideas of contemporary R&B and, technically, they’re prepared to take chances. Best illustration of all this is on the album’s lead single – ‘Tell Me You Love Me’. It has a killer melody -using a sample from the Manhattans’ version of ‘Then You Can Tel Me Goodbye’ (cranked a little by a helium-fuelled vocal) – and the tight beats are thoroughly contemporary. Leela offers a short monologue (homage to Shirley ‘Woman To Woman’ Brown?) and an Ernie Isley style guitar takes the track out. It’s a remarkable piece of work…but by no means the only one. ‘Party All Night’ is another highlight. Clearly, it’s an “up” tune but it’s not rammed with the obvious clichés that dog similarly themed songs in the worlds of modern/retro soul and contemporary R&B. If you want an unsentimental ballad then go to ‘Mr Incredible – Ms. Unforgettable’, a dramatic and edgy duet with Raheem DeVaughn. ‘The Fact Is’ is somewhat sweeter with a hint of Curtis Mayfield about the melody though Leela’s vocal is genuinely street tough – a sort of hybrid of early career Mary J Blige and ‘Chapter 3’ period Syleena Johnson. Indeed though we’ve spoken of the great Stax divas, Syleena Johnson is probably a better reference point. Like that lady’s albums ‘My Soul’ isn’t an easy listen. It’s edgy and dark – uncomfortable in places, but it’s real modern soul and as such the so-called ‘modern’ soul crew who like their music sanitised, polished and stuffed with retro touches won’t get it… it’s their loss.
(BB) 4/5