ARETHA FRANKLIN: YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK (1972)
1) Oh Me Oh My; 2) Day Dreaming; 3) Rock Steady; 4) Young, Gifted And Black; 5) All The King's Horses; 6) A Brand New Me; 7) April Fools; 8) I've Been Loving You Too Long; 9) First Snow In Kokomo; 10) The Long And Winding Road; 11) Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time); 12) Border Song (Holy Moses).
Seriously amazing. In a certain sense, this is Franklin's Abbey Road: one last colossal punch of an effort with a 100% payoff, before the inevitable disintegration. Of course, like the Beatles' solo careers, Franklin would still keep on shining, sometimes brighter, sometimes dimmer, but explode in such a dazzle of fireworks — never again. If you stop at this point and go no further, the Almighty will surely not count this against you (especially since it is my firm belief the Almighty himself would rather shake his booty to 'Rock Steady' all day long than remain bored stiff with fifteen minutes of 'Amazing Grace').
I have no idea why, but absolutely everything one could ever love and respect about A. F. is right here in this fourty-minute package. For one thing, there is no filler. Each song has its purpose and no two sound exactly alike. The arrangements are fabulous. The rate of cover tunes to original compositions is respectable, and the original compositions steadily outshine the covers. The production only occasionally gets bogged in soft-rockish values of the period. The balance between diversity and stylistic coherence is ideal. In short — perfection.
Let's see — where do we start with the songs? Okay, 'Rock Steady'. Aretha gets a little lost here among all the other sounds, but this is so damn right. In a terrific funk groove like this, she has to be a bit player, important, but not overwhelming, and that is exactly what she is. No other Franklin song rocks like this, as the bass, the chicken-scratch guitars, the sleazy brass bridge, and the voodooistic background vocals take you right in the middle of the jungle. This is not typical for Aretha, but I certainly wish it were, since she is perfectly capable of tackling hardcore funk head-on along with the best of 'em. She wrote it herself, too.
She also wrote 'Day Dreaming', a soft ballad more in the vein of Roberta Flack than her own, but one whose melody and atmosphere, with its cloudy electric pianos and flute swirls, perfectly match the title. She also wrote 'All The King's Horses', whose main hook — merging Humpty-Dumpty with a tragic tale of lost love — is as ingenious as it is genius. And even if 'First Snow In Kokomo' is not so much a song as it is a hummable piece of artistic memoirs set to gospel piano and weeping guitar, it is still a beautiful experience worthy of most jazz greats.
Once again, she intentionally misinterprets Otis Redding by turning 'I've Been Loving You Too Long' upside down: Otis wrote it as a near-suicidal tune, in a Tristan-like manner, presenting love as a destructive, lethal drug habit — Aretha discards any allusions to self-destruction and states her point very clearly: since she's been loving him too long to stop now, it is he who has no choice but to stay... or suffer the odds, whatever they might be. And who can tell whose interpretation is the more artistic one? Probably Otis', since the high tragedy and the elegant subtlety of the original are lost on Aretha; but that does not mean her take on this is not deserving, either.
The title track, a complete reworking of Nina Simone's original hit, puts us in celebratory mood and in a far more intelligent way, of course, than straightforward sloganing of the "Say it loud" type. More joyful celebration, but without a serious social background this time, is to be found on 'Oh Me Oh My' and the cover of the Delfonics' 'Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time?)' — to which the only possible answer is one hundred percent positive, of course.
As for 'Border Song', there was probably no way Franklin could not have covered it; in fact, I have a creeping suspicion that Elton and Bernie intentionally designed the tune in a way that would entice every single black soul artist to cover it (thus ensuring their financial future in case the boots and glasses failed to do their job). But you gotta give it to her: she fights through Taupin's meaningless lyrics with the same reckless abandon that she fought through Robertson's equally meaningless lyrics on 'The Weight', and somehow makes them meaningful in the (or, perhaps, through the) process — and, besides, the song works fine as a wrapping-up coda to the whole album. I wouldn't have refused a fifteen-minute jam-style reprise of 'Rock Steady' in its place, of course, but that's just me.
For more and more fans over the years, this is Aretha Franklin at her best, and I tend to agree. Only 'Rock Steady' would have made my personal Top 5; but where else will you find a Franklin LP that is (a) so consistent, (b) so variegated, (c) so well-crafted and intelligently arranged, (d) heavy on hits and hooks? Thumbs up on all these counts and more.