ARETHA FRANKLIN: SPIRIT IN THE DARK (1970)
1) Don't Play That Song (You Lied); 2) The Thrill Is Gone; 3) Pullin'; 4) You And Me; 5) Honest I Do; 6) Spirit In The Dark; 7) When The Battle Is Over; 8) One Way Ticket; 9) Try Matty's; 10) That's All I Want From You; 11) Oh No Not My Baby; 12) Why I Sing The Blues.
Aretha's second LP from 1970 has eventually emerged as a major critical favorite, despite containing only one hit. What a hit, though. When it was first released by Ben E. King, 'Don't Play That Song (You Lied)' was just a modest attempt at keeping up his chart presence — its lack of pretense to anything greater exemplified by the fact that it borrowed the rhythm track off his biggest hit, 'Stand By Me', but left behind that song's loyal intensity. In Aretha's hands (quite literally, by the way: she plays her own piano lines, and plays them in quite a confident and memorable way), it acquires a poppier, toe-tappier bounce that, melodically, still hearkens to the careless old days of 1962-63, and so gives us a good idea of what Ms. Franklin's early career might have been had she been fortunate to sign up with Ahmet Ertegün from the very beginning, instead of wasting six fruitless years on a completely alien label.
Normally, though, a «classic» Aretha LP was supposed to contain at least two or three big chart hits with monster hooks, and Spirit In The Dark clearly did not set out for those goals. Instead, here was a conscious attempt to get closer in touch with the lady's blues and gospel roots, as well as give her more room to stretch out as a songwriter. The songs have been, as usual, recorded at several different sessions with several different bands, but there is almost as high an amount of cohesion here as on Soul '69 — and the final results are much stronger, since the songs are way more in touch with Aretha's own spirit, be it in the dark or in the light.
She is responsible for writing four out of twelve tunes — a personal record, or a family record if you add a fifth one contributed by sister Carolyn. Instead of Burt Bacharach, she covers Jessie Hill, B. B. King (twice!), and, least predictable choice ever — Jimmy Reed; you'd think that Jimmy's one-two-note-based, toothless-rambling vocalizations would be unadaptable for the Atlantic treatment, but apparently, nothing is unadaptable. The Rolling Stones may have shown more imagination in regard to the song while applying their own instrumental flourishes back in 1964, but in the vocal department, Mick Jagger is hardly the king to Aretha's queen.
In a more risky battle,
Aretha's own creations are surprisingly diverse: orchestrated balladry ('You And Me'), gospel R'n'B that tries to compete with Wilson Pickett (title track), Ray Charlesian soul ('One Way Ticket'), and even a fun throwaway mid-tempo boogie number advertising the comforts of a local restaurant ('Try Matty's'). None of these goes far enough to convince us of the lady's composing genius, but she never needed one — it's quite sufficient that they establish competent grooves over which she can spread her sincere emotions.
The bottomline is that nothing here can be counted as an individual masterpiece, but there are no slip-ups or catastrophes — it's solid rootsy-bluesy grit all the way through, and, consequently, one of the few Franklin albums (heck, perhaps the only Franklin album) that can be considered a coherent fourty-minute piece of honest art rather than a chance bag. It is not quite clear to me how, after such clear signs of slipping into the worst vices of the Seventies on This Girl, she managed to reemerge in such a rejuvenated, cheese-free manner, but miracles sometimes happen even in the world of mainstream pop. A spiritually endowed thumbs up, of course.