ARETHA FRANKLIN: ARETHA (1980)
Aretha's debut with Arista Records is definitely an improvement over the self-parody of La Diva, but not by much. The fact that it restored her, albeit temporarily, on the charts, probably had more to do with promotion on the part of the Blues Brothers, who'd arranged for her fun cameo in the movie as the hot-tempered boss lady singing 'Think', and thus endeared her to an entire new generation of Saturday Night Live alumni. Don't think they were all that happy, though, upon rushing to the stores to scoop up her new album.
Aretha — at the time, the title could hardly have been confused with that of the long out of print 1961 album, although, today, a retitling to Aretha Reloaded might be welcome — is certainly a more reasonable proposition for the Queen than her last bunch of Atlantic albums. The giggly disco crap is gone, the arrangements do not rely so much on strings-based pop clichés of the 1970s, and the general atmosphere is slightly more relaxed, so that one does not fall under the impression that the lady is permanently trying to prove something. Even the photo on the album cover gives us arguably the most realistic Aretha expression we've seen since 1970.
Which means this could have been a fairly good record, if only the songs didn't suck. Unfortunately, the music is pretty much all rotten. The idea to modernize Otis Redding's classic 'Can't Turn You Loose' through robotic funk riffs and electronic drums may be questionable, but the main groove is still preserved, and this means that every single other groove-based dance number on here pales miserably next to this frail shadow of Otis' greatness. The only other track that is honestly fun is Aretha's own 'School Days', a charming deception — starts out as if it were going to be a soft, nostalgic, miserably boring ballad-o-mush, then, in good old fashion, transforms into a fast, exciting, modern jazz performance.
If only Aretha bothered to let her hair down on tracks other than 'School Days' and the Redding number... but throughout the rest of the record she plays it safe, more often hiding behind the big, but meaningless boom of drums and keyboards than not. The big anthemic ballad 'United Together', a typically bland Diva-style number that made it all the way to a whopping No. 56 on the charts (for all its Bigness and Pomp!), tries way too hard to communicate with the Lord's angels to convince me that it was indeed graced by an angelic presence. Sill, it is at least noticeable; the rest of the songs just roll by like ordinary clouds, instantly forgotten. For the record, the cover of the Doobie Brothers' 'What A Fool Believes' almost improves on the original, with a more complex arrangement and a vocal delivery that conveys deeper understanding of the lyrics (the subject matter of strenuous male-female relationship is, after all, right up Aretha's alley) — but melodically, this piece of primitive crap totally stunk with Kenny Loggins, totally stunk worse with the Doobies, and was objectively proven to have been skunk-raped upon birth with Aretha.
Thumbs down are in the order of things, although without a whole lot of cringing in addition; the tunes are really not so much puke-worthy as bland and expendable. At the same time, 'School Days' just might be Aretha's best overall creation of the entire decade — which, of course, does not bear good tidings for the rest of the decade.
Check "Aretha" (MP3) on Amazon