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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Soul '69


1) Ramblin'; 2) Today I Sing The Blues; 3) River's Invitation; 4) Pitiful; 5) Crazy He Calls Me; 6) Bring It On Home To Me; 7) Tracks Of My Tears; 8) If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody; 9) Gentle On My Mind; 10) So Long; 11) I'll Never Be Free; 12) Elusive Butterfly.

What a great piece of bait for professional pessimists and optimists alike. The former will say: «She had to exchange the bland confines of Columbia for the juicy pleasures of Atlantic and still end up with this?» The latter will retort: «Wow, if only she had this kind of dedicated support and personal maturity on Columbia! Finally, a dream come true!» And, in between them, they will en­sure the presence of an electromagnetic field that will only fall apart once the whole world has switched from Aretha Franklin to Beyoncé, by which time nothing will matter any more.

Soul '69 is not entirely retro; approximately a third of the tunes brings us back into the hands of The Great American Songbook, but the rest of the covers are more modern, ranging from early Sixties' Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson to very freshly written stuff (John Hartford's 'Gentle On My Mind', Bob Lind's 'Elusive Butterfly' etc.). What unites them all is the style: Aretha's re­gular studio backing band is joined — and, more often than not, drowned out — by a swarm of big band players, going for an intentionally old-style sound, but one that is still in good accor­dance with modern production values.

I daresay that most people who, in 1967, were overjoyed to see Aretha switch from the light­weight lounge entertainment style of Columbia to the rougher style of Atlantic, must have been shocked to see her come back to jazz-pop — after four terrific hit-filled albums of R'n'B? Hardly a surprise that the album was her first studio LP for Atlantic not to make it into the Top 10, al­though this also has something to do with the intentional lack of a hit single. And, of course, it must have burdened many a skeptical mind with the uncomfortable thought — maybe she does not like her 1967-68 sound, if it not only did not make her forget the fluff of the Columbia years, but, in fact, prompted her to return to it?

Certainly, that would be exaggerating things. No one can truly hate a sound that puts you on top of things, even if it happens to be provided by pop culture Antichrists like Diane Warren. But, for one thing, sti­cking to the same formula for ages and ages is a tiresome business, and, for another, digging R&B is hardly incompatible with digging lounge jazz. We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the effort that went into Soul '69 any more than we could doubt the honest verve be­hind Lady Soul. What we can doubt is the artistic merit of that effort.

First, the orchestral arrangements truly nullify the effect of the regular Atlantic players. Most of the time one cannot even hear the bass, and when it does come through, it's just... some bass. Se­cond, a few of the tracks are downright misguided, such as the glitz-style reinvention of 'Bring It On Home To Me' which completely loses the «humble devotion» aspect of Cooke's original. Third, she tries to compete with the sentimental aspect of Billie Holiday — why?.. Fourth, quite a few of these songs were never all that good to begin with.

Summing it all up, I must agree with the general consensus that Soul '69 is the least significant record from Aretha's «golden years» at Atlantic. As a risky experiment — cross Muscle Shoals with Las Vegas and see which one comes out on top — it was, perhaps, worth carrying out. The gamble failed, though, and all we have to do is optimistically thank the artist for not attempting to repeat it. Not bad, overall, but decidedly useless. Thumbs down.

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