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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Aretha Arrives


1) Satisfaction; 2) You Are My Sunshine; 3) Never Let Me Go; 4) 96 Tears; 5) Prove It; 6) Night Life; 7) That's Life; 8) I Wonder; 9) Ain't Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around); 10) Going Down Slow; 11) Baby, I Love You.

Just because this record happened to yield only one major hit ('Baby, I Love You'), instead of the usual two or three or four, it is occasionally dismissed or slighted as a rushed follow-up to the brilliancy of I Never Loved A Man. But if we start thinking of Aretha Franklin as a «singles ar­tist» — quite a possible way of life — we can skip all of her albums altogether, since even the best ones are very strictly divided into the attention-grabbing part and everything else. And, so­me­times, it makes good good sense to come back to the everything else.

There is also the strange album title factor: Aretha Arrives? The Present Perfect tense would have made far better sense, because, with several hit singles and a hit album and a perfectly es­tablished style and image, this is sort of a retarded announcement. Now if they had thought of this title for the previous record, that would have been a ballsy decision. But then, there is really no reason to think of the people at Atlantic Records as some sort of artistic superheroes compared to the marketing department of Columbia. People are always silly.

This is a terrific record. 'Baby, I Love You' is Ronnie Shannon's second great contribution to the catalog — a swaggering, self-assured, and hyper-catchy piece of R'n'B on which Aretha's playful interaction with her vocalizing sisters totally matches the intensity and fun of 'Respect'. How could this not be a hit? More surprisingly, how could Aretha's equally powerful delivery of the garage rock classic '96 Tears' not be released as a single? And, even more surprisingly, how did the world miss the excellent songwriting abilities of sister Carolyn Franklin, who contributes the album's second best tune: 'Ain't Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)', a strong, muscular feminist anthem in which the greatest hook is actually delivered by the backup singers ('nobody, nobo­dy!...') — well, we all have to make a living somehow, even if it involves hanging on to the coat­tails of Big Sister.

Aretha's takes on 'Satisfaction' and 'You Are My Sunshine' do not owe so much to Jagger/Rich­ards and The Pine Ridge Boys as they do to Otis Redding and Ray Charles, whose nearly unre­cognizable «deconstructions» she appropriates, and, once again, she beats or near-beats Otis, ma­naging to extract his slightly clownish manner and replace it with pure fire and brimstone, but fails to unsaddle Ray because of her inability to enact vulnerability — still, it is quite thrilling to watch her try, and fun to hear the kickass R'n'B punch of 'Sunshine' emerge after the lengthy non-rhythmic intro that gives no clue to whatever is going to happen.

For those who always search beyond pop hooks (and meticulously log their results so as not to appear empty-handed at the Last Judgement), the album's greatest achievement will most likely be 'Going Down Slow', which used to be a blues number, but now is a profound slab of gospel. I am not a fan; Aretha is not great at the tragic confession genre, and I cannot imagine her actually asking someone to forgive her for her sins, nor can I imagine her asking for a doctor. But it is still the usual powerhouse of a performance, that's for sure.

Altogether, with the exception of a couple semi-lame blunders like a Sinatra number, the record goes down very well. This is formula; it is now obvious that Aretha has found her groove and is going to stick to it at least until the changing times demand otherwise. But from an artist like Are­tha, we do not expect anything but a formula, and as long as the formula makes the world go round, so be it. A totally heartfelt, if not a thoroughly brainy, thumbs up.

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