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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Unforgettable


1) Unforgettable; 2) Cold, Cold Heart; 3) What A Diff'rence A Day Made; 4) Drinking Again; 5) Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning; 6) Evil Gal Blues; 7) Don't Say You're Sorry Again; 8) This Bitter Earth; 9) If I Should Lose You; 10) Soulville; 11*) Lee Cross.

Dinah Washington is one of those legends that is, in my opinion, much better off as a legend than as an ongoing presence on one's turntable: the Whitney Houston of her generation, classier than Whitney Houston only inasmuch as her entire generation was classier than Whitney Houston's ge­neration. She did occasionally perform fine, diverse material, but, at a time when Ruth Brown and La­Vern Baker were redefining the very idea of what a mainstream-oriented female performer could be up to, mostly got stuck with «torch songs» that come a dime a dozen: trashy, easily re­placeable fluff entertainment, with a talented, charismatic personality wasted on it.

Considering that Columbia was trying to market Aretha as the new queen of fluff entertainment, it is only natural that, upon Dinah's demise from a sleeping pills overdose in 1963, she was offer­ed to record a tribute album. Normally, when the new queen of fluff pays tribute to the old queen of fluff, you would expect to have the fluff squared. Surprisingly, Unforgettable is not as bad as it could be — in fact, it is far more genuinely entertaining than the preceding two albums. Rea­sons are coming up.

First, good song selection. Sentimental ballads are predictable, but only occupy about half of the space; the rest is dedicated to R'n'B and jazz numbers that kicked up a few extra sparks already in Dinah's days — such as her breakthrough single, 'Evil Gal Blues', or her very last record that had some proper swing in it ('Soulville').

Second, to my liking at least, Aretha does most of these songs better justice than Ms. Washington. When a tune demands saccharine and sentimentality ('Unforgettable') as its focal point, there is no big difference — both the original and the copy will seem equally classy to some and equally corny to others. But when it comes to reflecting inner torment ('Drinking Again', 'Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning') or outer frustration ('This Bitter Earth'), Aretha does them Aretha-wise = shouting her head off, and since she always shouts on-key, this gives her the edge over the far more restrained, far calmer delivery of Dinah.

Oh, there is always something to be said for modesty and restraint, of course — but Dinah Wash­ington did not sing these songs calmly because that style suited her own calm personality; she sang them calmly simply because back in those days you did not shout, not even when the mate­rial begged for shouting. Compare the timid original of 'Evil Gal Blues' with Franklin's fiery re­working: this is the way this hot jazz number implores to be done, and, in a way, it is comparable with all the fine work that the early Beatles and Rolling Stones did on those shy R'n'B / rock'n'roll / pop numbers by their predecessors.

Best of the bunch is a track that did not even appear on the original release and, in fact, has no­thing to do with Dinah Washington: 'Lee Cross', a rough, bawdy blues-rocker with shades of gos­pel, one of those songs that must have originally given the people at Atlantic the right idea about how to deliver Aretha's goods to the people in the proper way. This and 'Evil Gal Blues' are the obvious highlights and a must-have for any decent compilation illustrating Franklin's early years. The rest is a matter of taste, but my taste says there is enough power and spice here to guarantee at least a moderate thumbs up.

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