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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Aretha Franklin: This Girl's In Love With You


1) Son Of A Preacher Man; 2) Share Your Love With Me; 3) Dark End Of The Street; 4) Let It Be; 5) Eleanor Rigby; 6) This Girl's In Love With You; 7) It Ain't Fair; 8) The Weight; 9) Call Me; 10) Sit Down And Cry.

The first of Aretha's 1970s albums — and the one that, from a certain point of view, ushered in the Seventies as such. You know what I'm talking about. The watery pianos. The silky cymbals. The romantic strings. The gospel back vocals. The total subjugation of «melody» and «hook» to «atmosphere» and «elegance». The gradual crash of the classic school of R'n'B under the joint pressure of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway (or, rather, the shadowy forces of evil that stood behind their heavily burdened backs). The age in which mainstream entertainment music, after a short, wobbly period of assimilating the best influences from a host of creative artists, once again detached itself from good taste etc. etc.

All this and more is best illustrated by 'Call Me', a song that Aretha wrote herself, allegedly after overhearing a young couple in the park parting company with the words "call me, I love you" (or was that "I love you, call me"?). As heartbreaking/heartwarming as the story may sound, the song is sappy, the melody is lazy and unmemorable, and to call the lyrics clichéd would be a serious understatement: one can always object that it is the simplest, crudest words of love that are the most honest and effective, but, in this case, shouldn't we take the Ramones' 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend' over this pompous piece any time of day?

In fact, the crudeness of 'Call Me' may be enough to give one a new appreciation for the talents of Burt Bacharach — the title track, far more pompous in its use of orchestration, girl choruses, and just about everything, is far more involving and features enough tonal changes to carry one's at­tention throughout. But, of course, the balladeering highlight is 'Let It Be', a song that would have been a crime for Franklin not to record (in fact, she was sent a demo already in 1969, and her ver­sion of the tune appeared on the market before the Beatles) — after all, she was pretty much sent on this planet to put her stamp on every brilliant gospel-pop idea to be patented by anyone. Turns out that 'Let It Be' does work in grand style when you get the proper artist to do it, and King Cur­tis' passionate sax solo holds its own against Harrison's guitar versions fairly well.

All the more puzzling is the question of what in the world made Aretha go and nearly botch the impression by immediately following 'Let It Be' with her infamously misguided reinvention of 'Eleanor Rigby'. Granted, the song gets a nice frantic R'n'B groove to it, but there is nothing ex­cept the lyrics to link it to the original, so why establish this link in the first place? To let audien­ces worldwide realize how she understands absolutely nothing about the song? Why was this a single? To compete with Ray Charles (whose version also sucks, but at least has something in common with the spirit of the original)? Why does she sing "I'm Eleanor Rigby, I pick up the rice in a church where a wedding has been"? She is, quite clearly, not Eleanor Rigby, never has been, never will be (hopefully). On the other hand, she does engage in a piece of glorious idiocy, and glorious idiocy tends to attract more attention than ordinary genius; negative publicity makes for great publicity, and who wouldn't want to hear Aretha Franklin's openly awful take on a Beatles masterpiece, be it in 1970 or today?

The rest of the hit covers work much better. Dusty Springfield, apparently, loved Aretha's take on her own 'Son Of A Preacher Man' so much that she would rearrange all her live performances to fit that style, and while I certainly do not agree (nothing compares with the perfection of the ori­ginal), Aretha's version is worthy in its own way. Far less sexy, though: with Dusty, it is always clear what exactly she was being taught by the preacher's son, but with Aretha's spiritually en­hanced take, I am not that sure — the basics of Trinitarian theology, perhaps?

Jerry Wexler later regretted cutting the Band's 'The Weight' with Aretha, saying that the song was unsuitable for and incomprehensible to her black audiences — but come now, Mr. Wexler, I se­riously doubt that white audiences have a seriously better understanding of what Robbie Robert­son was trying to convey with the song (actually, there is fairly little evidence of Robbie under­standing his creation himself), and as for the black and white ties, how about The Staple Singers perfectly complementing The Band on The Last Waltz's famous performance? This is just silly. Maybe Aretha does not «get» the song (nor do I), but she sets herself on fire all the same; in my eyes, this is a total success, and the only real complaint is that the song all but wastes the talents of Duane Allman, accompanying the band on guitar but, for the most part, buried in the mix. Su­rely a short solo couldn't have hurt?

As you can see, the record, with its mix of styles comfortably old and dangerously new, bravely explorative and ridiculously skewed, is fairly intriguing in its lack of balance, and for its very un­predictability and occasional craziness, gets a thumbs up. I agree with those who see it as the be­ginning of Aretha's decline, but, for the moment, it was merely a side effect of the beginning of decline of the public taste, and there were still several years of exciting struggle to go through.

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