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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Songs Of Faith


1) There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood; 2) Precious Lord (part 1); 3) Precious Lord (part 2); 4) You Grow Closer; 5) Never Grow Old; 6) The Day Is Past And Gone; 7) He Will Wash You White As Snow; 8) While The Blood Runs Warm; 9) Yield Not To Temptation.

Upon release, Aretha Franklin's groundbreaking debut caused a serious stir among the musical elites of the day, what with its innovative concept of a mini-musical built around Bram Stoker's Dracula. Starting with the ominous introduction of 'There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood', it is vividly remembered for Aretha as Lucy Westenra's stirring aria ('You Grow Closer', as the Count grows clo­ser), the creepy seduction monolog of guest star Christopher Lee ('Never Grow Old', in­deed), the terrifying chorus of vampiric henchmen ('He Will Wash You White As Snow'), the triumphant evil of 'While The Blood Runs Warm' that puts Wagner to shame, and the sudden, deus-ex-machina, but still heartwarming happy ending of 'Yield Not To Temptation', as the forces of Light manage to rally around the victim and drive off the Terror... you wish!

Okay, so who could actually resist imagining this bit of Cooper-meets-Coppola fantasy upon gla­n­cing at the track listing for the first time? And is it really our fault if so many subjects and titles of gospel hymns involve the good old blood-'n'-guts imagery? In any case, it certainly is a little disappointing when you put on the record, and, instead of this promising model, it turns out to be a bunch of crappily recorded gospel hymns, performed by Aretha and a choir of highly pro­fe­s­sional church­goers and highly amateurish singers during a service held by her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, in his own little parish in Detroit.

The Reverend was a very active promoter; not only did he put his daughter in the Lord's service at the earliest age that the Lord would admit servants, he went so far as to put her under contract with Checker Records, to use every possible opportunity to spread the Lord's word in as many ways as possible. (For that matter, the Reverend was one of the first Reverends to record his own sermons and distribute them through the LP medium; God can only wish he had more PR agents like this).

It is somewhat pitiful that he did not strive for a better ambience — the recording is really, really poor. The piano, played by Aretha herself, wobbles and floats, the chorus is mostly unfocused, and the ad-libs of 'yes, yes', 'praise the Lord' and suchlike sometimes sound as if they were overdubbed at random, or as if it never mattered to anyone in the audience at the time that the ad-libs should punctuate specific moments in the singing rather than just be there. On the other hand, there is probably something to be said for authenticity; we do not have that much solid sonic evidence for gospel conventions in the 1950s, and Songs Of Faith is at least a decent example.

Now for the main point. The album was recorded when Aretha Franklin was fourteen years old, and it already gives us her voice and fiery personality as fully established. In fact, she is far more inspired — and inspirational — on here than on any of her records from the next ten years on Columbia. She does not go for subtlety, and she does not try to capture any of the possible nuances of these hymns like, say, Mahalia Jackson; at 14, she is much more intent on simply set­ting the house on fire, and does she ever do it! The Reverend had the good sense of thrusting the only good mike in the church into close proximity with his daughter's oral tract, and Aretha's singing rules supreme over every other sound; but something tells me she'd do almost as good if the mike were at the other end of the building. The power buildup is amazing — you do have to keep in mind that it comes from a 14-year-old all the time, but that is the only condition necessary to accumulate a ton of respectable admiration.

Admiration does not necessarily mean enjoyment: straightforward gospel is a tough genre to en­joy unless you are a Jesus freak, and wall-rattling power alone is not sufficient to redeem its weak sides. But I cannot deny the basic thrill of accessing this experience, nor, of course, the tremen­dous historical importance; the brainy side demands that the album receive a thumbs up based on these considerations. For the record, Songs Of Faith can also be found under a million other titles, such as The Gospel Soul Of Aretha Franklin, Aretha's Gospel, You Grow Closer, Ne­ver Grow Old, and, of course, Dracula: A Gospel Mini-Musical.

1 comment:

  1. I know you wrote this in 2010, but did you ever come across any info on the original pressing of this record by her dad's label? I'm trying to track this relic down and there's not a lot of info on it online. Thanks.