ARETHA FRANKLIN: RARE AND UNRELEASED RECORDINGS (1967-1974/2007)
CD I: 1) I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) (demo); 2) Dr. Feelgood (demo); 3) Sweet Bitter Love; 4) It Was You; 5) The Letter; 6) So Soon; 7) Mr. Big; 8) Talk To Me, Talk To Me; 9) The Fool On The Hill; 10) Pledging My Love/The Clock; 11) You're Taking Up Another Man's Place; 12) You Keep Me Hangin' On; 13) I'm Trying To Overcome; 14) My Way; 15) My Cup Runneth Over; 16) You're All I Need To Get By (take 1); 17) You're All I Need To Get By (take 2); 18) Lean On Me; CD II: 1) Rock Steady; 2) I Need A Strong Man (The To-To Song); 3) Heavenly Father; 4) Sweetest Smile And The Funkiest Style; 5) This Is; 6) Tree Of Life; 7) Do You Know; 8) Can You Love Again; 9) I Want To Be With You; 10) Suzanne; 11) That's The Way I Feel About Cha; 12) Ain't But The One; 13) The Happy Blues; 14) At Last; 15) Love Letters; 16) I'm In Love; 17) Are You Leaving Me (demo).
There is no serious need to hunt for «lost gems» from all over Aretha’s career — certainly not now, when Rhino has done such a decent job of summarizing, if not exhausting, the vaults of the Queen’s peak period (the full title is Rare And Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign Of The Queen Of Soul, and who could contest that?). Although this double CD is consistently listenable, there are (almost) no lost masterpieces or anything; in the accompanying notes, Jerry Wexler ardently defends the tracks, but, after all, it was he himself who prevented them from riding the original trains, and he must have had his reason.
Nevertheless, it goes without saying that Rare And Unreleased Recordings belongs much more securely in your collection than all of Aretha’s post-1974 records put together in one large pile. Returning to those sweet sounds — songs written by people understanding the essence of music, arrangements played and produced by people in love with the sonic capacities of musical instruments, the Queen herself at the peak of her pipes — is such a breath of fresh air after going through the lady’s dance-pop and hip-hop years that the relative lack of hooks on the outtakes and the rawness of the sound on the demos can easily be overlooked.
For starters, the early demo versions of ‘I Never Loved A Man’ and ‘Dr. Feelgood’ — stripped to just Aretha and her piano — are almost superior to the final polished product, because the lady does not hold back at all, belting it out at such decibels that it seems like a mortal combat between her and the piano (guess who loses). It is during moments like these that one understands how much the packaging of Aretha as a «Gift To You From Atlantic Records» (let alone Columbia or Arista who could not even produce a fine piece of wrapping paper) actually contained and constrained her — either out of modesty, so as to leave plenty of space for the players, or out of some irrational fear on the part of the producers, too afraid to uphold, nurture, and encourage that streak of wildness she had in her younger days. Then, of course, they ended up doing it for so long that she lost it completely, beyond hope of repair, sometime in the mid-Seventies.
Of the songs one usually knows from other artists, ‘Fool On The Hill’ fares about as well as the average Beatles song covered in an R’n’B manner — quite badly, in other words — but it is not as emotionally queer as ‘Eleanor Rigby’, anyway, and should have certainly been used instead of it for This Girl’s In Love With You; ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ is as essential for fans of Duane Allman as their recording of ‘The Weight’, even though his slide backing is mixed somewhere in the seventh channel and is rather sensed on a psychic level than directly; ‘My Way’, if you can stomach the song’s overplayed sentimentality at all, is at least tried out with more honesty and personality than Presley’s rendition; and the big big surprise is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, sparingly and colourfully adorned with simple electric piano chords and sung with so much passion that it is possible to be convinced that she actually understands what the song is about.
Not coincidentally, ‘Suzanne’ is an outtake from the sessions for Hey Now Hey — Aretha’s most daring and experimental album, whose bombing pretty much ruined her self-credibility as an artist, with disastrous results for anybody who’d want to review her ensuing career (anyone you know, by any chance?) — and there is plenty more on the second CD here from the same sessions, including a second-nearing-first-rate funk-rocker (‘Sweetest Smile’) and at least one near-fabulous ballad (‘Tree Of Life’) that is probably the closest thing to an unjustly forgotten epic piece on the whole album (or maybe not).
It is a very good gesture on the part of Rhino that they knew where to draw the line, and did not dare explore the vaults of Atlantic for «rare masterpieces» from the Queen’s disco days — the onset of deep autumn is heard well enough on the last few tracks (from the Let Me In Your Life sessions), and it is quite permissible to stop at the hot gospel duet with Ray Charles (‘Ain’t But The One’). This way, no matter how much these outtakes deserved being outtakes, every single one of them has more than just historical value; and in the relative absence of new Aretha albums in the 21st century, it’s nice to know that at least the vaults can still please her fans. Thumbs up.
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