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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved A Man..


1) Respect; 2) Drown In My Own Tears; 3) I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You); 4) Soul Serenade; 5) Don't Let Me Lose This Dream; 6) Baby, Baby, Baby; 7) Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business); 8) Good Ti­mes; 9) Do Right Woman, Do Right Man; 10) Save Me; 11) A Change Is Gonna Come.

One does not need to go much further than the three funky guitar notes that open 'Respect', against a background of big brawny brass, to understand that things have changed. The first two things that the new deal with Atlantic gave Aretha was fine musicianship and strong material; re­acting to the third, long-present, ingredient — her power — they formed an explosive, and the re­action was immediate. At times, one hears faint echoes of a critical backlash against I Never Lo­ved A Man, which has its uses — it goads people into giving more attuned listens to the rest of the lady's catalog — but there is simply no way the album can be budged from its pedestal with­out the side effect of toppling Aretha altogether, and do we want to do that?

The original hit, the one that clearly indicated how well Aretha and Atlantic can do business to­gether, was 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)'. The Muscle Shoals supply the rhythm; Aretha herself supplies the piano; and little-known songwriter Ronnie Shannon supplies the song, written specially for Aretha. This is simple, but deep soul, the likes of which she could never ac­cess on Columbia, and, predictably, the public was captured by the awesome contrast of the fiery, ecstatic screaming on the verses and the hot, breathy, animalesque hush of the chorus.

About 'Respect', Otis Redding, while performing the song in concert during the last year of his life, would always mention the «little girl who took it away from me», although in quite a friend­ly manner. He was right, too: singing it from the feminine perspective, Aretha turned it into the women's-rights anthem for her epoch, not to mention the fact that, for Otis, it was simply one more memorable, but hardly outstanding, hit in a long series of classics, whereas for Aretha it was really the song that made her, and even today, when you listen to it, it is easy to understand how she must have known this would be the song that would make her — and how everyone as­sisted her so well in that knowledge, starting from her sisters with their brilliant vocal echoes and ending with King Curtis' sax break. Oh, and the newly added bridge, and the vaguely obscene "sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me" — is this the first time the phrase appears in a pop song? If not the first, it is easily the best.

There is the usual complaint to be applied: Aretha does not stand up much for diversity, and all of the material, no matter how different in melody or mood, gets the standard Franklin treatment. On the other hand, this is a sport of its own: isn't it exciting to take songs as diverse as 'Drown In My Own Tears', Ray Charles' celebration of desperation, and 'Good Times', Sam Cooke's glorifica­tion of party life, and try to find a common invariant? Aretha's, of course, reads «power». When she sings the former, she is not really desperate — she uses fake images of desperation to exer­cise mind control over her deceitful lover; and when she sings the latter, she does not invite you to "get in the groove and let the good times roll", she commands you. Lady says to get in the gro­ove — what are you, deaf or something?

Understandably, though, material like 'Drown In My Own Tears' works better as a curio than as a soul classic; but when the songs actually do deal with the issue of power, they are immortal. 'Res­pect' and 'I Never Loved A Man' are clear highlights, but so is Aretha's self-penned 'Dr. Feelgood', where she finds the love she needs to be OK with her (poor, poor Dr. Feelgood, whoever he is), and Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come' — no questions asked about that one.

The album contains no obvious filler; some cuts are stronger, some weaker, but the album was designed as a solid blast, and Aretha jumps in it with the same fervor she demonstrated on her first Columbia record, except that, this time, the fervor is not wasted or dissipated on syrupy strings and corny oldies. Even the composition of the record — wisely kicking off with the soul aggression of 'Respect' and closing things with the epic conclusion of 'Change' — deserves an unequivocal thumbs up from the brain department, and as for the heart, well, if Aretha Franklin is OK with you as a source of inspiration, there is no way the heart could feel disappointed with this particular record.

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