Elise LeGrow: Playing Chess

Elise LeGrow
Playing Chess
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Starting out in the pop music business, especially as a vocalist who doesn’t compose their own material, is a risky proposition, at least since Buddy Holly and subsequently the Beatles rewrote the equation over 50 years ago.

Consequently, new vocalist Elise LeGrow’s debut of often radically rearranged songs from the fertile, roots-heavy Chess Records catalog is a risk, regardless of its good intentions. Led by the same team that successfully paired Joss Stone with (mostly) old soul nuggets on her 2003 debut (not coincidentally for the same S-Curve label), this similar experiment gets off to a rocky start.

LeGrow and her producers attempt to morph Bo Diddley’s tough and often scary “Who Do You Love” (“I use a cobra snake for a necktie … just 22 and I don’t mind dying”) into a smooth, swamp-pop concoction that loses all of Diddley’s dark, tightly wound danger and boastfulness. Things don’t improve with Chuck Berry’s “You Can Never Tell” that completely abandons the original melody, replaced with a stripped-down, supper club jazzy, tropical gauze that’s an uncomfortable fit, especially compared to Berry’s playful, high-spirited version. A run through of Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover” paired with Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” is an interesting juxtaposition but the peppy Steely Dan vibe doesn’t do it any justice.

However, when LeGrow furrows into the Chess vaults to unearth rarities such as The Radiants’ “Hold On,” Sugarpie DeSanto’s deep, bluesy “Going Back Where I Belong” and especially Etta James’ exuberant “Can’t Shake It,” it will not only send all but the most knowledgeable soul fans on a quest to find the originals, but allows LeGrow to let loose on tunes that showcase her husky range and dynamic vocals. It’s no coincidence she covers James since her voice is so similar to that of the blues/soul icon, particularly evident on Johnnie & Joe’s “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea.” In this setting, LeGrow’s take on the Moonglows’ “Sincerely” becomes her “At Last”; a signature song where the heartfelt love and honesty of the words coalesce around her emotional smoky tone that shifts from a purr to a howl over the course of a verse.

It’s generally too slick and the aforementioned experiments don’t work. Yet when LeGrow connects with the right tune and the arrangements stick closer to the originals, this revamped Chess songs concept works well to expose both the singer on her debut offering and some great and obscure soul material most of us have never heard before. Not quite a win-win, but close.

The release date for this album has been pushed back to October 6.