ARETHA FRANKLIN: ARETHA (1986)
1) Jimmy Lee; 2) I Knew You Were Waiting; 3) Do You Still Remember; 4) Jumpin' Jack Flash; 5) Rock-A-Lott; 6) An Angel Cries; 7) He'll Come Along; 8) If You Need My Love Tonight; 9) Look To The Rainbow.
A second chance for Narada Michael Walden, but nowhere near as well exploited as the first. Unquestionably the fruitfull-est thing about this album is its sleeve painting, and only because it happened to be Andy Warhol's final work (and I am not even one of Andy's major fans). The rest ranges from the usual cringe-worthy to the usual hilariously ridiculous.
Three songs on the whole deserve to be heard. The unknown sleeper is 'He'll Come Along', a very friendly and, thank God, easy-on-the-electronics pop gospel number that Aretha wrote herself — reflecting her renewed interest in direct conversation with the Lord after all these years, and a direct precursor to next year's One Lord, One Faith; notable if only for the fact that it was her first decent song written since 'School Days' at least.
Of the four singles, 'Jimmy Lee', as much as it is spoiled by the big drum sound, still works as a conscious, and successful, throwback to the good old days, although its pop rhythms, girlie harmonies, and even its title (reminiscent of Martha & The Vandellas' 'Jimmy Mack') indicate a Motown connection rather than an Atlantic one; Aretha even borrows a few vocal moves that are generally more characteristic of Diana Ross! Certainly an awkward impersonation for those who are familiar with both ladies' styles — but certainly nowhere near as awkward as the Queen's take on 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'!
Fortunately, Keith Richards produced the track himself, and provided guitar accompaniment along with Ronnie Wood, ensuring the kind of quality that N. M. Walden could never dream of: the guitars clash over Franklin's howl-in-the-pouring-rain in true Stonesy manner. The problem is, it's just not the kind of song that is likely to find a suitable interpretation from Aretha — the Queen was never meant to be that hard. She tries approaching it from some sort of Moses-on-Sinai angle, all awe, thunder, and lightning, but in the process, loses the sarcasm and irony of the thing, not to mention the «playfulness». It is still a spirited, well-meaning, sweaty performance, but she'd probably have a finer day covering 'Shine A Light' or something.
But at least these songs qualify as exciting curios, rather unpredictable if seen from the perspective of all the badly dated musical mutants that haunt the rest of the LP. The lead single, 'I Knew You Were Waiting', is a duet with George Michael, which sounds just like George Michael; if you enjoy the George Michael vibe, you will love its blunt catchy Eighties pathos, but I beg to pass. As for the fourth single, its very title — 'Rock-a-Lott' — may be enough to make sensitive souls shiver in despair, but it gets far worse: the werewolf growls of «Rock, rock, rock» that punctuate the chorus beats may be the single most embarrassing moment in Aretha history, rivaled only by "I'm gonna be the biggest star at the disco".
The rest of the songs just continue to betray the cheesy fun dance vibe of Who's Zoomin' Who — most are power ballads that never go beyond generic, although, frankly speaking, if energizing the album meant bringing in more numbers that sound like 'Rock-a-Lott', I'd rather opt for Phil Collins collaborations instead. Still, Aretha's third album to be titled Aretha is at least curious — with moderately tasteful numbers like 'Jimmy Lee' going hand in hand with plastic garbage, it is yet another of those records that really make you wonder on the issues of «good taste» and its limits. Thumbs down, then, but with a pinch of amazement.
Check "Aretha" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Aretha" (MP3) on Amazon