BLUES TO THE BONE

Etta James

In his liner note to Etta James's new CD, Martin Scorsese recalls first hearing the great R&B vocalist in the early '60s: the thrill that came from listening to her sing "At Last" and the sound of that "soaring voice . . . it was like taking a ride up to the stars." "Blues to the Bone" doesn't aim for anything so lofty or romantic, but it still makes for one wild ride.

Devoted to the music of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and other blues titans, the album is part homage, part homecoming. After watching Scorsese's PBS series on the blues last fall, James began reflecting on the R&B music she recorded in the '60s for Chicago's Chess Records, home to several now-fabled bluesmen. James then set out to place her own stamp on a dozen blues classics, all of them made famous by her male counterparts.

Granted, James's interpretations of "Dust My Broom," "Got My Mojo Working," "Lil' Red Rooster" and other blues anthems won't erase anyone's memory of the definitive recordings. Yet she certainly has her way with these tunes, infusing them with plenty of swagger, grit and soul.

The acoustic tracks outshine the sometimes too-slick electric cuts, especially when James reprises Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin' " and converts Hooker's sexual boast "Crawlin' King Snake" into a sexual toast, warning, "He's gonna crawl up to your window, crawl up to your door, if you got anything he wants -- and I know you do -- he's gonna crawl up on your floor."

It's hard to think of another singer who could pull off this salute with the kind of power and assurance that James consistently musters. But then, there has never been anyone quite like her.

-- Mike Joyce

AFTERNOON

Eleni Mandell

With alt-rock's favorite sexpot, Liz Phair, making goo-goo eyes at Avril Lavigne's fan base these days, the music biz is in dire need of a sultry chanteuse for adults. Norah Jones is way too wholesome for the job, and while Lucinda Williams is a contender, the alt-country queenpin's erratic, honey-I'm-not-in-the-mood approach to making records can leave fans feeling like spurned lovers pining for just one more passionate kiss.

Enter Eleni Mandell. The Los Angeles-based singer has been releasing fine albums at a regular clip since the late 1990s, the first of which, "Wishbone," earned her persistent comparisons to the likes of Tom Waits and punk siren PJ Harvey.

Those analogies aren't completely off the mark, but Mandell's music has a softer focus than that of those gritty luminaries -- and "Afternoon," her latest CD, is Mandell's kindest and gentlest yet. It's also her sexiest. "Hands will come together, gloveless, when I get home," she offers with a wink and a nod on "American Boy," the disc's torchy opener. On the rockabilly-inflected title track, Mandell wants to be "your good time girl," while on the heavy-breathing twangfest "Dangerous," she "can't wait to get my salty lips upon your fingertips."

Mandell also asks a lover to wave his magic wand on that one -- proof positive that until Phair gives up on the Xbox set or Jones finally gets her mind in the gutter, Mandell is the sexpot to watch.

This "Afternoon" is a delight.

-- Shannon Zimmerman

LOUDEN UP NOW

!!!

The best way to experience !!! (pronounced chk-chk-chk) is in a small room without a stage, with punkish vocalist Nic Offer working the crowd like an art-damaged exercise coach. On record, though, the bicoastal dance band is hit-and-miss -- the grooves are always ambitious, but sometimes the energy just doesn't translate.

"Louden Up Now," !!!'s second full-length disc, largely exchanges the septet's basement-funk past for a sound that flirts with the essence of those production-heavy 12-inch pop remixes of the 1980s.

Sure, !!!'s basic elements are still in place: the profanity-flecked catchphrases, the multilayered percussion and the guitar and bass riffs that owe their souls to Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.

But there's a greater emphasis on mixing, manipulation and electronic instruments. Somebody should let these guys loose on Duran Duran's back catalogue.

The new approach leads to a lot of filler, and only the leadoff track, "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Karazzee," and the 2003 single "Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (A True Story)" feel like complete, well-rounded works. Both unfold in stages -- "Karazzee" unleashes its tension in a shimmering guitar breakdown, and "Giuliani" surges and retreats across nine bass-fueled minutes.

The rest of "Louden Up Now" amounts to a treasure hunt for bona fide hooks. !!!'s deeper influences -- '70s German art rock, old-school Jamaican dub and so on -- often lead into territory where texture is the primary concern, and cleverness trumps pure listenability. Some extra songcraft would help, but at least the beat doesn't stop.

-- Joe Warminsky

!!! will perform June 20 at the Black Cat.