ARETHA FRANKLIN: ARETHA NOW (1968)
1) Think; 2) I Say A Little Prayer; 3) See Saw; 4) Night Time Is The Right Time; 5) You Send Me; 6) You're A Sweet Sweet Man; 7) I Take What I Want; 8) Hello Sunshine; 9) A Change; 10) I Can't See Myself Leaving You.
Working at the rate of two first-rate LPs per year might not seem that difficult when you do not have to write (most of) the songs you record — but, on the other hand, for a «cover-based» R'n'B artist to have released four excellent records in two years is a feat you just can't beat, and I do not even mean today, when even major R'n'B stars lazily condescend to record one album every two or three years and most of it is bland crap anyway; I mean back in the 1960s, when even the grittiest stars of Atlantic Records still gave their all to the singles market.
So if, as usual, there are still two or three tracks on Aretha Now that don't do much except pad out the length, this should not detract from the overall consistency. Same band, same songwriters, same formula, and, fourth time in a row, it still works, as long as the pool of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke songs is still open to reinterpretation. The Cooke tribute here is 'You Send Me', a rare case of Aretha doing fine on one of Sam's more sentimental numbers — because this particular one does not require any vulnerability on her part; and the Charles tribute is 'Night Time', on which she celebrates the joys of lovemaking from the feminine side just as vigorously as Ray used to do it from the male one. (Strange they never tried a duet, missing the chance of recording the sexiest performance of all time).
The album is most vividly remembered, however, through 'Think', a rare case of a self-penned song that is also a classic; Aretha attempts to one-up Otis by writing her own version of 'Respect', and she very nearly succeeds, putting another big-time feminist hit under her belt, and one that rocks the shoes off right from the very first beats, too. (Twelve years later, she was smart enough to refresh the song for the general public in The Blues Brothers). I may be wrong here, too, but I think it might be the first pop song ever to feature, if not the word "freedom" itself, but an anthemic exclamation of "Freedom!" in the chorus, and even today it is still one of the most powerful "Freedoms!" ever — even if, in its context, it refers to family freedom rather than social freedom (not that we haven't been told that all society starts with family).
The other big hit was Aretha's reinterpretation of Burt Bacharach — Dionne Warwick's 'I Say A Little Prayer', a song whose pomp may be overbearing for some and whose tenacious presence in pop culture may be off-putting for others, but an icon is an icon, and this is the second-most iconic recreation of it, and it's right here on this album. For the record, Aretha's version completely dissolves the candy gloss of
And, of course, the hits are still interspersed with minor, but heavily rocking R'n'B cuts each of which is delightful in its own minuscule way — Don Covay's 'See Saw', Isaac Hayes' 'I Take What I Want', and Clyde Otis' 'Change' are all worthy renditions. No man ever did 'I Take What I Want' better than Allan Clarke of the Hollies, but no woman ever did 'I Take What I Want', period — that is, not before Aretha, who, as it seems, was constantly on the look out for strong self-assertive male songs from the past decade(s) and turning them upside down. Good for her, and another major thumbs up; when you know for sure that it's formula, but it doesn't feel one bit like formula, that's real talent for you, and sometimes, even genius.