Leela James, with Kem

"It's been a long time since you've heard it like this... / Ain't nobody bringing it quite like this," contends neo-soul belter Leela James on "Long Time Coming," the closing track on her 2005 debut, A Change Is Gonna Come. And while these claims might smack of hyperbole, James's album sounds awfully fresh for a record that's so thoroughly nurtured in the well-plowed funk and soul of Mavis Staples, Betty Wright and Chaka Khan. James describes her husky vocals and gritty music as "back porch soul," a style that harks back to a time when "folks sat around on those hot, sticky days on their porches singing and playing the blues." But what keeps her album from slipping into the old-school formalism of, say, Joss Stone are the imaginative samples (e.g., Gwen McRae's "Funky Sensation") and of-the-moment production by the likes of Kanye West, Wyclef Jean and Raphael Saadiq. Simmering keyboard sustains, serpentine guitar lines and wet, bumping beats abound, as do loose, lively shouts, hand claps and rim shots. From the reggae-powered cover of No Doubt's "Don't Speak" to her soul-on-ice reading of Sam Cooke's title track, James sells it all and never misses a beat.


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