ARETHA FRANKLIN/ “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”
When Kalamu mentioned to me that we should do an all Aretha Franklin week, I said yes right away. Aretha’s The Queen, so why not? There’d be an overabundance of classics, of course. As for covers, Aretha’s done plenty of those as well. But what about new material?, I asked. What about something for the contemporary section? Kalamu said he had just the thing: a brand new Aretha Franklin release called Jewels In The Crown: All-Star Duets With The Queen Of Soul. That sounded interesting. Kalamu said he’d send me the tracks and I agreed to write about it. It’s a few weeks later and, folks, I have news. This album is bad. No, not bad meaning good. Bad meaning bad. Bad meaning God-awful. Bad meaning horrible. I have scarcely (if ever) heard such a relentless compilation of pointless screeching and wailing. What I’m trying to say to you—just in case the adjectives ‘bad,’ ‘awful,’ and ‘pitiful’ didn’t quite do it—is this: the fantastically-misnamed Jewels In The Crown is horrendous. The biggest reason this album is bad is virtually none of these pairings result in unified singing. Only rarely do any of the singers sound like they have any concept of what it means to sing with someone else. Instead, the guest singers take turns singing at The Queen. They seem to think their opportunity to share the mic with Aretha Franklin was actually some sort of call to arms, a competition. As the recording date approached, I imagine these various guest singers drinking extra chamomile and avoiding talking so they’d have every ounce of possible vocal strength in reserve in order to then unleash their full power on us, the innocent and unsuspecting would-be fan. And when it isn’t the guests who are busying themselves with assaulting our delicate ears with their ceaseless yelling, it’s Aretha herself doing it. Jewels In The Crown begins with Aretha and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards covering his band’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” It’s an almost-good performance marred by Aretha (circa 1986 or so) insisting on breaking out the melisma well before it’s either welcomed or useful. (Second line of the first verse: Howl-owl-owl-owl-owl!!! Why, Aretha? Why?) The second duet is “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves,” a Top 20 pop hit from 1985 featuring Eurythmics vocalist Annie Lennox. Actually, if I remember correctly, this was a Eurythmics song featuring Aretha Franklin. At any rate, it’s a good record and both singers sound great. The problem is the ‘straight out of the 80s’ accompaniment. If you can listen to this and not think Flock Of Seagulls or Wham, you’re a better man person than me. Speaking of Wham, the next duet is 1987’s “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” with ex-Wham singer George Michael. Again, it’s not bad—both singers sound just fine—but my God, those keyboards. Did we actually used to think this chinsy-sounding crap sounded good? I can’t personally speak to that question because back in 1987 I was otherwise occupied. (Golden Age hip-hop was my thing. Thanks, I know I was right.) “What Now My Love,” performed with Frank Sinatra, is next. It’s a case of trying and failing all around. Aretha sounds out-of-place, the orchestra sounds tacked on and Frank sounds like he was already dead. (Actually, I think he might’ve been. I seem to recall that this ‘duet’ came from an album of stars singing along to tapes of Frank’s voice. We’re recycling crap albums to make new crap albums now. Great.) I hadn’t thought about this before I started writing, but whoever tracked this album decided to bunch all the white people together at the beginning. Or is it just a coincidence? Hmm. Anyway, we move on to “Put You Up On Game,” a duet with 2004 American Idol winner Fantasia and here’s where we go from ‘ok’ and ‘average’ to ‘horrible’ and ‘my God, the horror.’ Somehow, the powers that be decided this song should be the first and only single from this collection. The title alone ensured that I wouldn’t like it. It’s a personal peeve of mine when people try to use slang they’re not comfortable with and I’m willing to bet my next paycheck that outside of the recording studio Aretha Franklin has never and will never use the phrase “put you up on game.” It’s pointless, it’s ridiculous and given some of the other crap on the radio, it’ll probably be a hit. I hardly have the stomach to go through the rest of these tracks one-by-one, by now that I’ve started I feel obligated to finish. We get duets with John Legend (who sings “I ain’t got nothing to prove” and “I’m feeling good” – meanwhile, I’m not believing him either time); Mary J. Blige (the wooden-sounding drum machine ruins an otherwise decent tune); Elton John (Hey, how’d he sneak into the Blacks Only section?!); Whitney Houston (a ‘you go, girl’ fest gone completely out of control…and, again, the drum machine sounds like crap); Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan (sitting through the obligatory ‘listen to how soulfully we can yell’ segments of this performance is almost physically painful…and, I guess the segregation angle was just me); Luther Vandross (my God, the fucking drum machine again…kill me now); Michael McDonald (another possibly decent song ruined by unrelenting synthesizer cheese); Mariah Carey (see the Raitt and Estefan performance and then multiply that by at least ten…on the plus side, all of the stray dogs and cats have deserted my neighborhood for good); Mary J again (this one’s not that bad…the drum track blows but not as badly as a lot of these others); George Benson (a Disney-esque ‘smooth R&B’ song that is nothing but one cliché strung behind another, both musically and lyrically). At long last (with emphasis on the word ‘long’), we finally close out the album with Aretha’s 1998 Grammy Awards performance of “Nessum Dorma” which she performed on very short notice after the scheduled vocalist, the famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti fell ill. I know nothing about opera. To me, it was a great moment then and it still sounds OK now. Maybe it’s a wonderful performance; maybe it’s average; maybe it’s terrible. Who knows. At this point, frankly, who cares. The bottom line is this: Aretha Franklin has recorded something like 30 or 40 other albums and of those, I’d guess somewhere around 20 are better than this one by leaps and bounds. If you like Aretha, look for anything with the Atlantic logo on it and buy it. It’ll probably be good. On the other hand, if you’re an incurable masochist who wants to frustrate yourself and annoy your friends and neighbors, buy this album. Everyone will hate you for it, including yourself. —Mtume ya Salaam Beware… …when they cheerfully suggest, you go first, it’s a trick. I’m laughing. You were oh so much more kind than I would have been writing the lead on this piece of lead somebody has the cajones enough to hope(?) / expect(?) to go gold. There’s a word for this: alchemy. According to the Microsoft word processing dictionary, alchemy is “an earlier and unscientific form of chemistry, seeking to transform base metals into gold…” And on a serious note: this brings up a few of questions. 1. How can someone as talented as Aretha Franklin is produce dreg of this caliber? 2. How come some artists can remain strong until the end (think Duke Ellington or most any of those old blues cats, or even Johnny Mathis—I know, I know, but you’ve got to give Mathis credit for staying on top of “his” game)? I mean, how come some artists stay the course and others have a golden era and then fall so far off that it’s painful to hear them later on? 3. Finally, why am I even trying to make sense out of this? Mtume, last week you said you blamed Aretha for the attack of the oversinging soul singers. You had no idea how right you were. —Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, December 24th, 2007 at 1:05 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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