Etta James – At Last!

Before you drop the needle on the groove, look at the sleeve. It is a perfect duplicate. No modern ephemera, no barcodes, no modern label logos, no modern dates. Aesthetically, this is a “perfect” reissue. And listening to the recording proves equally fascinating as you can hear a real tussle going on with the remastering.

Speakers Corner obviously wanted to retain as much of the atmosphere and flavor of the original recording as possible, keeping James’ signature strength, power, and “bad girl” delivery. You can effortlessly hear James’ rasping, guttural power on the remaster. At the same time, however, you can also hear the German imprint wishing to push the technical boundaries as much as possible. And the label accomplishes this goal with a vastly improved soundstage as well as a richer, broader vocal. James really flowers here, her emotional texture conveying a deep understanding of the lyrics and a close relationship to the song itself.

But the real magic happens when the audiophile imprint’s two aims clash. Sparks fly; you can clearly hear James play with the microphone. She moves around it like Cassius Clay dancing around his opponent in his prime. Listen to her stand away from the mic, giving some distance as she strikes a high note and before moving back in to tackle a softer line. Then, she surprises you. She darts in and hits you with a massive, volcanic eruption—a primeval shout that literally whacks the needle into the red and slams the signal to the ceiling. Even the Speakers Corner remaster can’t cope, and this is the point where the mastering engineer must think, “OK, that’s it. This is the line. This is where we stop.” Because, to process and develop the signal any further would take away James’ passion.

And that’s what we have here: Pure, unadulterated passion. There’s no covering, no skin, no protection. It’s bare, vulnerable. It could shrivel up in front of you or blast you in a moment’s notice. Etta unleashed. –Paul Rigby

Speakers Corner, 180g LP