ARETHA FRANKLIN: THROUGH THE STORM (1989)
This is pretty darn bad, and occasionally gets presented as Aretha's lowest point of the decade, but for the most part, Through The Storm sucks through theory, less through actual realization. At the least, it is nowhere near as mind-numbingly boring as the Vandross-era records. Yet, granted, once you become acquainted with the complete list of people involved in the making of this album — a list that includes Alanis Morissette's sidekick Glen Ballard; a late-period washed-up Elton John; Aretha's own disciple, Whitney Houston, famous for copying the Queen's mannerisms much more successfully than her soul; Diane Warren, the wicked witch of corporate songwriting; and (drumroll!) KENNY G!! — once you see all these credits, it is easily understood how one might hate Through The Storm before even putting it on.
Three things are worth noting, though. First, there is one good composition on the album, and it is a Franklin original in the Franklin style, indicating that the lady still got soul, no matter how many layers of corporate garbage she was buried in. 'He's The Boy' is just a simple, unassuming, cutesy jazz-pop number with normal drums, normal pianos, normal electric guitars, and no attempts at any unnatural hipness — almost like a dramatic highlight.
Second, the electronic funk duet with James Brown that opens the record is contrived and forced — few people are less compatible in the world of R'n'B than Aretha and James, and she has rarely sounded sillier than every time she goes "Hit me!" and "Give it to me right here!"; what may be good for Tina Turner is ruinous for Franklin. ("You don't mess with the Queen of Soul", she warns the man sternly, as if forgetting that they screened out the crown and the sceptre before letting her into the studio). But even despite the thoroughly fake atmosphere of 'Gimme Your Love', it is still interesting to see two giants working together, just for the sake of the experiment. Like conducting a reaction that results in large amounts of hydrogen sulfide — drastic results, curious process.
Third, it is hard to accuse the producers of at least not trying out different approaches. Through The Storm sucks in quite an eyebrow-raising number of ways. Bad electro-funk, bad dance-pop, bad power balladry, even bad rearrangements of former successes — 'Think' mostly just recalls how terrific the original was, and 'Come To Me' is just a similar-sounding re-recording of the 1980 ballad — and lots of duets, which never really click but always sound different. Some do not work because Aretha is either too scared or just plain incapable of letting her hair down ('It Isn't, It Wasn't' sounds like she and Houston are almost terrified of each other rather than excited about working together), some just because the songs are that poorly written (the title track wastes both her and Elton's time), some because it's all about loungey adult contemporary atmosphere ('If Ever A Love There Was' — the Four Tops on vocals and Kenny G on sax, what a brilliant cocktail).
But they are all different! If ever you wanted to make a solid case for the vicious side effects of diversity, Through The Storm is your ace card. If you didn't, it's worth taking a peek just to see what strange paths life can follow sometimes. Thumbs down, with a whiff of amusement.
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