Picks and Pans Review: Stickin' to My Guns

updated 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Etta James

Blues belter James has turned down the flame from the blowtorch intensity of her comeback album in 1988. While there are no R&B meltdowns on this 10-track follow-up, the 52-year-old James growls, cries and hollers her way through a '60s soul-inspired lineup that includes Otis Redding's aching "I've Got Dreams to Remember" and the David Porter-Isaac Hayes lament "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)."

Blessed with one of the best voices ever to make the switch from gospel to gutbucket, James got her start with the Johnny Otis band. In 1954, at the age of 14, the former Jamesetta Hawkins cut her first hit—a response song to Hank Ballard's "Work with Me Annie" that was just as cheekily called "Roll with Me Henry." Beginning in the early '60s, James made a series of now classic R&B hits for Chess Records, among them the ballad "At Last."

James's career foundered through the '70s and '80s until the release in 1988 of Seven Year Itch, which placed her back (where she belongs) in the pantheon of powerhouse soul divas that includes Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown and Mavis Staples.

Muscle Shoals veteran producer Barry Beckett, who also produced Seven Year Itch, can take credit for the album's authentic Memphis soul sound. Stand out sidemen include ex-Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli, who lays down some slick licks on "Get Funky." Joining James on this uncharacteristic if catchy cut is rapper Def Jef.

James herself helped in the substantial postproduction work on the tracks, some of which end up sounding overinstrumentalized. One tune that avoids that effect is Tony Joe White's "Out of the Rain." which James performs to earthy perfection backed only by a harmonica (Jimmie Wood), a quiet guitar and a church organ.

While Stickin' to My Guns flirts with a kind of smoothness that can smother the raunchy power of today's female singers. James's true vocal grit keeps the promise made in this feisty album's title. (Island)

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