I guess I’ve wanted to be a fan of Morgan James more than I’ve ever been a fan. Until now that is. Memphis Magnetic is the record that proves the hype and goes beyond it; it’s the real proof that she has something to say as well as an impeccable way of doing so. It is the real deal. It’s also a modern soul album to rival recent works by Shelby Lynn and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Which means it’s a big tick from me.
James is classically trained – she’s worked in operas and stage musicals and of course she’s one of the recurring cameo-stars for the Postmodern Jukebox franchise. You might not have known her name but you’d have heard her and seen her in video clips doing everything from singing in a line-up to turn All About That Bass into a sassy bit of jazz or taking Queen’s Who Wants To Live Forever and injecting some soul into its torch balladry.
I have a hard time with that Postmodern Jukebox but Morgan James (and in fact many of the singers attached) has been a shining light. A reason to connect – if not entirely believe.
And having seen the band live and watched her be a natural star I’ve wanted to hear that in her own music. But it has happened. Until now.
There have been other covers projects under James’ name – I wanted to like her song by song cover of The Beatles’ White Album in honour of its 50th Anniversary for the audacity and tribute factors. But to my ears it just wasn’t very good, nor needed. It missed the point and offered no grit.
She’s also covered Nina Simone.
But here we get to hear the soul cry when attached to James’ own writing. Memphis Magnetic is a triumph for many reasons, not just because it’s been recorded in Memphis with the Hi Records gang (Al Green, Ann Peebles) – though that certainly helps.
Morgan’s voice is rightfully the star – here she’s like early Mariah Carey but with a deep soul/blues feel. The touchstone of Susan Tedeschi seems obvious in both he vocal delivery and the songwriting, perhaps more so in the writing and arranging.
There’s great ballads here – and you almost feel this might have been the direction Amy Winehouse would have headed towards.
Also there are a couple of superb duets. Ryan Shaw does his Marvin Gaye thing on I Don’t Mind Waking Up (To A Love This Good) and Marc Broussard complements and contrasts so well on Love Ain’t Worth Living.
You can hear the Broadway of course. That’s forever a part of her sound and it’s never been my favourite thing about her – but here with some soul-deep arrangements, violins and horns and that perfect rhythm section…well, I can hear the things I want to hear. A little Bobby Gentry, a bit of Aretha. And it feels genuine. This is the proof that I guess I needed that Morgan James has done the listening. And to hear it translated into great new songs of her own…well, for me this is the proof a great talent has finally arrived.