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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul


ARETHA FRANKLIN: LADY SOUL (1968)

1) Chain Of Fools; 2) Money Won't Change You; 3) People Get Ready; 4) Niki Hoeky; 5) (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman; 6) Since You've Been Gone; 7) Good To Me As I Am To You; 8) Come Back Baby; 9) Groovin'; 10) Ain't No Way.

Nobody remembers 'Niki Hoeky'. For a reason. Written by Jim Ford, better known as the author of 'Harry Hippie', it is a very silly tune that, in its original conception, only serves to introduce the most exciting linguistic excesses of Southern speech to Northern — and, in a longer run, world­wide — audiences. When simply sung by Aretha Franklin, it is marginally listenable, like every­thing else by A. F. But throw in some ultra-loud, monster bass playing from Tom Cobgill, ballsy brass playing, and the overwhelming strength of The Sweet Impressions on backing vocals, and a minor corny throwaway becomes two and a half minutes of powerful, intoxicating jamming that is impossible to stop. I want the full version, goddammit; with this kind of drive, they must have ploughed on for another ten minutes at least.

This is the major reason why all these albums from that particular period are so highly valued — the golden touch of Atlantic's session players. The actual songs are not all that good. Lady Soul is often quoted as Franklin's finest hour, but throughout that finest hour, I only find one piece of brilliant, original melodicity: Carole King's (of course — who else's?) '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'. And, odd as it may seem, it is also a song that, perhaps, works better in King's own hands; with its decidedly non-feminist, maybe even anti-feminist message ("if I make you happy, I don't need to do more"), it is pretty hard to reconcile it with Aretha's usual aggressive style. She certainly tries, and does a great job anyway — not easy to botch a fantastic tune, one of the most impressive, cathartic build-ups in pop history, with a fantastic singer, even if they are both fantastic in such incompatible ways. But, in my opinion, 'Natural Woman' only showed its true face three years later, when recorded by Carole himself.

The true face of Lady Soul is the other big hit, 'Chain Of Fools' — Don Covay's R'n'B stomper is far more primitive from a melodic standpoint, but at least this is a song that is forever bound to be associated with Franklin and Franklin only. And the Muscle Shoals: a very important ingredient here is the swampy guitar playing, which, together with the 'chain chain chain' backing vocals, adds a creepy voodooistic tinge to the song — we are told that, in light of the five years of torture that the protagonist gets from her man, "one of these mornings the chain is gonna break", but we can only guess how. I smell bonfires and fresh rooster and goat blood, personally.

Like all great R'n'B, Lady Soul does not stuff your brain cells with magic combinations of com­plex chords, but provides dazzling, fiery, and diverse entertainment. Aretha throws herself at a little bit of everything. There is more Ray Charles, this time the rowdy Ray Charles turf where she can almost beat the genius ('Come Back Baby'); there is more getting hip to the sounds of the times (a cover of the Young Rascals' 'Groovin'); there is the daring to challenge the unchallenge­able — James Brown, with a smoking version of 'Money Won't Change You'; the beginning of Aretha's lengthy love affair with Curtis Mayfield ('People Get Ready', which she rips out of the silk cocoon of The Impressions and adapts to her own rough 'n' rowdy gospel style); and even a heartily welcome guest appearance by Eric Clapton, who makes the slow-passing four minutes of 'Good To Me As I Am To You' twice as exciting.

For the grand finale, sister Carolyn comes up with the epic winner 'Ain't No Way', again, not exa­ctly a pillar of songwriting but a song that allows Aretha to show softness and vulnerability with­out self-humiliation — trust a sister to truly understand the nature of your soul, rather than an out­side songwriter, no matter how brilliant. Supposedly, that is also Carolyn and Erma wailing out the­re in the background, in a manner rather uncharacteristic of standard R'n'B vocalizing, almost close to bel canto at certain moments.

The immense reputation of Lady Soul, to a large extent, rests on the success of the hit singles, but there is no question that, at this point, Aretha and her following were still in full control of the formula and able to keep it fresh by constantly adding new minor ingredients. So it gets the same type of a thumbs up as the less revered, but equally satisfactory Aretha Arrives. And, for the record, try to find an issue that has the unedited version of 'Chain Of Fools', with an extra minute of introductory vocalizing over rhythmless swamp guitar. Makes the voodoo brew quite a bit den­ser and juicier.

2 comments:

  1. Kudos for thinking that Carole King did "Natural Woman" better than Aretha.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Double kudos for writing "'Natural Woman' only showed its true face three years later, when recorded by Carole himself."

    ReplyDelete