Picks and Pans Review: Leela James

UPDATED 08/08/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/08/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

A Change Is Gonna Come

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Where did the soul go?/ It's all about the video." So sings newcomer Leela James on "Music," this album's funky first single, on which she calls for a return to real singers and artists like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Marvin Gaye. And with the vintage R&B sounds on her debut—which takes its title from the 1964 Sam Cooke hit that she covers here—this petite woman with the big voice is a refreshing change from today's BET booty-shakers. The L.A. native has clearly learned well from the old-school masters; her husky vocals, equal parts gospel fervor and down-home grit, conjure shades of Mavis Staples, Betty Wright and Tina Turner on songs like the uplifting "My Joy" and the finger-licking-good "Soul Food."

From the bluesy ballad "When You Love Somebody" to the upbeat party jam "Good Time," which samples Gwen McCrae's 1981 disco classic "Funky Sensation," James captures the soulful essence of an era gone by. Not that she is merely a nostalgia act, though. She incorporates contemporary reggae rhythms and street slang on the Wyclef Jean-produced "Ghetto" and successfully remakes No Doubt's "Don't Speak," injecting the song with a churchy spirit that Gwen Stefani could only dream of.

DOWNLOAD THIS: "My Joy"

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