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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Aretha Franklin: Sparkle


1) Sparkle; 2) Something He Can Feel; 3) Hooked On Your Love; 4) Look Into Your Heart; 5) I Get High; 6) Jump; 7) Loving You Baby; 8) Rock With Me.

Technically, this is not really the soundtrack to the movie Sparkle, even though all of the songs were indeed performed in the movie. They were, however, performed by different actors rather than Aretha — but as the movie took off among black audiences, and so did the songs that were, after all, mostly penned by Curtis Mayfield himself, it was decided (don't ask me by whom) that a wiser commercial decision would be to let the Queen of Soul sing all the material, instead of all the inferior human material. The original vocals were therefore wiped out, and Aretha's singing pasted on top of the instrumental tracks — the dehumanizing potential of technology at work.

Nevertheless, the move was smart, temporarily restoring Aretha's commercially shattered career and giving her a last bright moment with Atlantic. In reality, the success of Sparkle must have mostly had to do with the success of the movie — frankly speaking, the songs are not that good, and there is no reason for them to be: Mayfield was recording so much at the time that it was only natural for him to keep his best stuff to himself and relegate all the mediocre dregs to outside me­ndicants. The overall sound is generic, but pleasant: dense orchestration, multiple layers of brass, keyboards, guitars, harps, and whatever other instruments were lying around. Yet behind all the layers, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of essence or memorability.

Ms. Franklin does attempt to lay into these songs as if she'd played all the roles in the movie, but it does little good: as gritty as Sparkle the movie was (dealing with the rise and fall of an all-girl band loosely based on the Supremes), most of the grit takes place off stage, and within the sound­track is reflected only in 'I Get High', a dark, chaotic aria on the effects of drug usage, which real­ly reads more like a moody instrumental composition, with someone rashly deciding to slap on a bunch of deranged vocals as a last-minute thought.

The rest is generally just soft-rock, or, rather, soft-R'n'B sentimental fluff, with 'Something He Can Feel' as the biggest hit — deservedly, since the song builds up all the way to the strongest cho­rus on the album, except that it is perhaps more suitable for a tighter, poppier delivery than Aretha's usual and totally unavoidable free-form vocal flow. 'Rock With Me' is also pretty cheer­ful, upbeat, and catchy, and 'Hooked On Your Love' gets quite a few unexpected chord changes in the chorus for a run-of-the-mill ballad.

The bottomline really depends on whether one trusts the sales record. To me, even such a relative commercial failure as You seems livelier, energetic, and less calculated. But there is nothing tre­mendously wrong with Sparkle, either — in fact, it stands up to repeated listening, if only for the high amount of creativity that went into the arrangements. Calculated, yes, but they took the time to work it out, so thumbs up out of basic respect at least.

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