Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2012-02-17


Etta James: The Dreamer (Verve Forecast, 2011) A hard liver, she's sounded old for a while. This is different--weary, diminished. Yet the physical and even mental diminution enriches the music. It was cool for her long-passed youngblood homeboy Johnny Watson to claim he was "Too Tired," but it's cooler for James to remember that song half a century later and sing it against tempo as if she may not get all the way to 2:34. The "Surely someone will understand me" of Bobby Bland's failed crossover title tune resonates differently from a dying woman. It's also different for a ghetto woman born and raised to seize "Welcome to the Jungle" and tell Axl, "If you got the money we got your disease." And having eased right into Otis Redding's blissful "Champagne and Wine," she then transforms his bone-tired, just-off-the-road marriage proposal "Cigarettes and Coffee" into an evocation of old love so calm you believe she achieved some bliss of her own, and domestic bliss at that. A-

Etta James: Matriarch of the Blues (Private Music, 2000) Produced by the well-bred rhythm section of drummer Donto James and bassist Sametto James, this is half riskily irreverent rock and roll and half perilously imperious blues. Beyond an inconclusive Creedence cover, she co-owns every non-blues--"Miss You"! "Gotta Serve Somebody"! "Try a Little Tenderness"! Otis's chortling "Hawg for Ya"! Al's unremembered "Rhymes"! "Hound Dog," which counts aab or not! But neither the horns nor the B.B. homages will inspire the dutiful bluesboy to return to his long-abandoned O.V. Wright and Little Milton studies. From Big Mama Thornton to Shemekia Copeland, no woman has sung such material with more power. So maybe power isn't what it needs. Maybe it needs more irreverence. B+

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