CD Review: “Cadillac Records” soundtrack can’t measure up to music legends

Cadillac_Records_Music_from_the_Motion_Picture[Music World Music/Columbia]

Measuring up to music legends such as Etta James, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry is virtually impossible. So you’ll have to forgive the soundtrack to “Cadillac Records” — the movie that chronicles Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess, who gave rise to some of the greatest blues, R& B and rock music to emerge in the ’50s and ’60s — for falling short.

The collection is a mixture of cover songs featuring Beyonce as Etta James, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters and Columbus Short as Little Walter, along with new, retro-flavored material from Raphael Saadiq, Beyonce’s younger sister Solange and gospel duo Mary Mary.

Give the actors credit for rising to the challenge and taking on material originally sung by greats. But sometimes the results make you want to reach for the skip button. 

Wright’s rendition of “I’m A Man” is among the hard to swallow. With Wright’s limited vocal chops, the passion and power of the song are largely lost. Same goes for the repetitive “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” — it’s a solid effort on Wright’s part, but it nevertheless ends up feeling more like the blues on quaaludes.

Beyonce as James is more interesting but not completely enthralling, mainly because James’ and Beyonce’s vocal tones are so distinct. Beyonce is all about power and passion — vibrato, runs and melodrama. James’ voice is defined by a worn, weathered edge; the drama resulted more from what she didn’t do vocally than what she did.

As follows, Beyonce’s take on “At Last” is a different look than James’ version, with subtlety kicked to the curb in favor of melismatic flair.

“I’d Rather Go Blind” is a better James cover, almost “Ring the Alarm” meets downtempo ’60s flavor. Get it straight mister, Beyonce does NOT want to see you walking out that door.

The best Beyonce fit is the old school “Once In a Lifetime,” a new track and possible “I Am…Sasha Fierce” castoff that found a home on the soundtrack, which is executive produced by Beyonce’s father, Mathew Knowles.

Mos Def is a bit of a shock — we all know the rapper/actor has leaned more toward singing on his albums, but he turns in a surprisingly competent performance on “Nadine” that’s countered by an irritating “No Particular Place To Go.”

Mixed in with the covers are new tracks with a retro feel. Saadiq’s “Let’s Take a Walk,” which also appears on his latest album “The Way I See It,” sounds more like it was birthed in the ’60s than any song on the soundtrack. Mary Mary’s “The Sound” is high-energy, horn-infused fun.

Solange’s “6 O’Clock Blues” has an interesting, retro-tinged musical backdrop, but the younger Knowles’ voice quickly becomes grating.

Rapper Nas and his father, jazz musician Olu Dara, close out the album with a sort of bluesy, storytelling-to-rap effort that seems more about declaring how awesome Nas is than anything else.

All in all, the album is a smart way to introduce old music to a new generation using fresh faces and recognizable names. But the covers fall short of the originals, the new songs are a mixed bag, and the album ends up with a disjointed, dull quality you wouldn’t expect from a soundtrack to one of the most exciting times in music history.

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