important work in color
1961: Aretha. 1962: The Electrifying Aretha Franklin. 1963: Laughing on the Outside * The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin. 1964: Running Out of Fools. 1965: Yeah! Aretha Franklin in Person. 1966: Soul Sister. 1967: Greatest Hits * Unforgettable (released 1967, rec. circa 1964) * Songs of Faith (same as previous) * I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You) * Aretha Arrives. 1968: Lady Soul * Aretha Now * Aretha in Paris. 1969: Soul 69 * Aretha's Gold. 1970: This Girls in Love With You * Spirit in the Dark. 1971: Greatest Hits * Live at Fillmore West. 1972: Young, Gifted and Black * Amazing Grace * The Great Aretha Franklin: The First 12 Sides * The All-Time Greatest Hits. 1973: Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) * Best of Aretha Franklin. 1974: Let Me in Your Life * With Everything I Feel in Me. 1975: You. 1976: Sparkle * Ten Years of Gold. 1977: Sweet Passion. 1978: Almighty Fire. 1979: La Diva. 1980: Aretha. 1981: Love All the Hurt Away. 1982: Jump to It. * Sweet Bitter Love. 1983: Get it Right. 1984: Arethas Jazz. 1985: Whos Zoomin Who * Aretha Sings the Blues * 30 Greatest Hits. 1986: Aretha. 197: Through the Storm. 1991: What you Get is What you Sweat. 1992: The Queen of Soul (box set). 1997: A Rose by Any Other Name.
Surely Time magazines mention of her natural delivery and four octave range is incorrect and exaggerated: her vocal dynamics are pure artifice lifted from the church choir; her range more like 2 ½ to 3 octaves seems to be larger than it is because the octave jumping comes with astonishing changes in tonal color. Her youthful voice had a whip-like quality that didnt sit well with strings; it needed something hard to bounce against. She was stuck for five years doing songs that never meshed with her style. The strength of her voice isnt in its tone which is adequate enough on the low end, stern in the middle, and reedy and thin at the top (although her tone has developed considerably over the years, the effectiveness of her material has diminished). Her sense of drama eschews intimate, introspective, colloquial vocalization. As her voice climbs and climbs, shes seldom haunting or atmospheric (some exceptions: the spooky introduction to "You Are My Sunshine" from Aretha Arrives; and some of the tunes from her gospel albums, like "Wholly Holy," where the choral backdrop is trance-like). There is stiff elegance and haughtiness in her style, although the gospel derived, note skipping technique can make ecstatic certain types of audiences, in much the same way that shilling guitar or saxophone virtuosos can make certain audiences ecstatic. Aretha Franklin is much more of a technician than has been assumed. A show of emotion sometimes isnt really emoting. Too often she suggests the contours of emotion without exactly being emotional. She has an arsenal of effects: she worries notes; sometimes to death, sometimes to life. Surprising squeals on the oddest words, like Jesus just pinched her butt. For a rhythm and blues singer, sexy songs are infrequent. She knows how to jazz a song up. Her sense of drama can get redundant because her effects hem her in. There is little emotional subtlety as things escalate. She can get stuck on repetitive vocal riffing in the same way a band can get stuck on repetitive instrumental riffing. Sometimes no matter how many times she repeats a line with different emphasis, it doesnt mean anything more. At her worst, one senses Whitney Houston, as a young girl, listening to the radio. Arethas not the best interpreter because her voice leads, rather than her intellect or intuition: shes almost too studied. She seems to be a stylist first, and a bit of an improviser (again the church), but not much of an interpreter. Her viewpoint stresses fidelity and the pain of breaking up a nice enough idea in this complex modern age but it's not a very deep or very personal approach. Problem is shes pretty content with the text of the predictable love ballads shes generally caught doing. She puts her voice to them and they become something else, but not something better. On Sam Cookes "Bring It On Home to Me," for instance, she deconstructs the melody and adds well, its not clear what she adds that is useful. When her voice is pitched high there is little nuance. Her melisma doesnt always have the payoff of emotion. When Franklin stays within the boundaries of a song, shes often not interesting. Sometimes, the more a song becomes hers, the more structure breaks down and melody is left behind. Most of her own writing seems marked by commercial convention. As a songwriter she may have peaked with "Last Snow in Kokomo," (from Young, Gifted and Black) which was a detailed and evocative remembrance. Sometimes listening to her versions of old tunes its hard to believe the originals actually had structure. Structure for Aretha is built in the upward ascension of her vocal lines. Understatement has little to do with her gifts. She latches onto a phrase and stretches it into elastic shapes. Her style in the early seventies and eighties came close to epitomizing MOR and bloated commercialism even more that the mega-productions of bands like Boston and Toto. There were times when she might as well have been Grace Jones. What the hell is "soul?" Is it encompassed by all this yelling and keening. Is gospel music based on total artifice? Is pop-gospel a fake style with little to recommend it beyond its vaudevillian aspects?"
Pardon my mashed together batch of notes, but my appreciation of Aretha is somewhat mixed. There is that tendency to think that artistry is easy and natural. That talent is (merely?) a gift given for no apparent, or some mysterious, reason. Once chosen, everything flows. Arethas career suggests the opposite, but the conscious choices shes made, the self-created artistry, and the limitations of her power and strengths are overlooked by those stunned by her vocal dynamics. The relative lack of success of her Columbia albums (1961 1967) show a singer trying to slide by with an elegance and finesse that isnt matched to a corresponding vocal tone. She is not a stylist able to elevate crappy material through conceptual attitude; instead, she provides vocal gymnastics. The problem with Franklin's career is that she has been good in two settings the church and the equally rough abandon of her foray into the Stax/Volt sound. It wasnt until she hooked up with musical deities like Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and the Muscle Shoals melting pot, that she cut loose. Aretha found her voice. Or, perhaps more accurately, she found her approach an approach that could disguise her limitations, but not without certain artistic concessions. This isnt to deny her her merits. The closer she was to the blues, and the closer she was to the rocking muscle of the original group of Stax/Volt session men, the punchier dynamic of her vocal style was astonishing and her performances could be electrifying. Arethas vocal dynamic may indeed be peerless in loud/soft dichotomy, and the power or her mid-sixties to early seventies sides are essential. But put another way by one of her admirers, Peter Guralnick:
"Her success swept aside everything in its path previous standards of excellence were rendered suddenly moot by the entrance of someone so uniquely gifted, so inspired in her art that all others were dwarfed by comparison There had not been so stunning a debut in popular music since Elvis Presleys, but unlike Elviss, Arethas art was wrung from experience, as intuitive as her apprehension of that experience might be." [It should be pointed out here that Ive Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You - the album Guralnick is talking about - was not Arethas "debut," since shed already released at least nine albums nobody much cared for]. Guralnick describes an Aretha concert as good things "sandwiched between equally convincing moments of silliness and self-consciousness, pretense and stiltedness, that seemed as out of place then as they do today in so commanding a performer." "Her work, too, alternated between the stripped-down and the overladen.. her earliest tendencies toward the sentimental and the overblown continued to find expression there have been occasions when she has done little more than show off the purely technical aspects of her voice, treated songs more as vocal exercise than as opportunities for emotional engagement. At the same time Aretha has created a body of work, a thoroughly inconsistent [italics mine] body of work that is inimitable in a far deeper way. For Aretha has fashioned as ambitious and intimate an oeuvre as exists within the framework of the popular song."
The two funniest lines are the ones about the "thoroughly inconsistent body of work that is inimitable" and the garbled thinking in Arethas "intuitiveness" of her apprehension of experience. I dont mean to knock Peter Guralnick: his book Sweet Soul Music (Harper Perennial-1986) is a classic documentation. But there are many other singers to admire more: Otis Redding and his whooping F Troop calvary charges into adversity; Janis Joplins harrowing intuitions of a not very kind universe; Smokey Robinsons falsetto grace and lulling beauty; Grace Slicks chewing up and spitting out of words with a writers inspirational subtlety and big picture meaningfulness; and Mick Jaggers hard work in pulling something from an absolutely tonal nothing, are a few "for instances." If there isnt much text in a pop artists style, we should hope that the artists style creates a text which doesnt seem the case with Arethas art. Aretha has added very little of importance to her oeuvre since 1974. No doubt she would have been a much more personable performer if shed had the ambition to become her own songwriter. But hiring producers, year after year, to write or arrange an album of good tunes, when they havent even proven they can do it for themselves, is obviously going to have limitations. Shes been called a genius. I dont see it, but The Queen of Soul boxed set makes me think that I might be wrong.
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