Sunday, October 26, 2014

Kat's Korner: Aretha Knew You Were Waiting For This

Kat: Being Aretha Franklin can be a lonely thing.

As Lady Soul, she's one of the gang, a highly talented member of the crew, but one of the gang.  Elevated, due to her talent, to the Queen of Soul, she's suddenly the target of one pot shot after another and, since Natalie Cole's emergence in the early seventies, one artist after another has showed up eager to knock her off the throne.

When everyone's gunning for you, it's easy to turn bitter.

But Aretha's latest album demonstrates she's anything but.

Leave it to Lady Soul to honor her female peers.

At last, someone has.

It sure wasn't Judy Collins.

As I noted in 2007:

Judy's now decided to record three albums that celebrated two songwriters and one song writing team. Is anyone else noticing that they are all men? Is anyone else wondering why, since "Both Sides Now" more or less made her for most of the public, she's off covering Dylan, Cohen, Lennon and McCartney instead of Joni Mitchell?
If women can't be counted on to celebrate female songwriters, who are we supposed to count on?
Laura Nyro, Nina Simone, Carly Simon, Aimee Mann, Ani DiFranco, Tracy Chapman, Holly Near, Meshell Ndegeocello, Rickie Lee Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Janis Ian and, of course, Joni Mitchell are just some of the women with a body of work worth exploring. So there's something very sad that Judy's off on her third album and appears unaware any female songwriter might have a body of work worth exploring. At the rate Judy's going, we'll have Judy Sings The Songs of Neil Young, Judy Sings The Songs of Paul Simon, Judy Sings The Songs of John Denver and, yes, even Judy Sings The Songs of Tiny Tim before she takes a moment to honor the accomplishments of women.

The male-identified/obsessed feminist -- or 'feminist' -- Judy has recorded one collection after another celebrating male songwriters (an album of Bob Dylan, an album of Lennon and McCartney and an album of Leonard Cohen) while refusing to do the same with the works of Carly Simon, Laura Nyro or Joni Mitchell -- Joni, of course, wrote the only top ten hit Judy's had in her entire career.

When it comes to recognizing female artists, Judy takes a pass and, as usual, the real work was left to a strong woman: Aretha.

The new album is Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics.

It's an exceptional album and one of her finest, certainly a late-career masterpiece.

And it's being well received . . . .

Or Aretha's singing is.

See, there are a lot of reviews proclaiming things like, "Cyndi Lauper only borrowed 'At Last,' Aretha steals it from Etta James . . ."

There's a lot of effort, in other words, to pit one woman against another, to turn a review into a catfight of dueling song versions.

That sort of review completely undermines the point of the project, Aretha celebrating some of popular music's all time great female vocalists.

"At Last" kicks things off with a splendid cover which finds Aretha exploring the song in a way she hasn't since her cover of the Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes" back in 1981.

And that's the key to this album, what a lot of people seem to miss in reviews (despite praising the album), Aretha's having fun.

In 1968, Aretha and the Sweet Inspirations were having fun in the studio, riffing on Dionne Warwick's hit song "I Say A Little Prayer For You" while recording Aretha Now, never intending their amusement to be a track on the album, just having fun riffing off one another and exploring other spaces in the song.  In the end, the song did get recorded and included on the album, it also a top ten hit on the pop charts and a number 3 hit on the rhythm and blues chart.

It's in that spirit that the album is intended.

Aretha's not trying to be or replace Etta James anymore than she was trying to take on Dionne.

She's just embracing a group of women and the songs they sang, putting a bit of a personal stamp on them.

If you miss that, you'll be among those carping about her version of "Nothing Compares To U."

Aretha's not trying to compete with Sinead O'Connor.

She's doing it as jazz song to try to open it up to a different approach.

Of all the tracks on the album, many reviewers seem to be most disappointed with that song, expecting that Aretha would try to powerhouse it.  Instead, she takes a lighter approach and reminds everyone just how versatile a vocalist she is -- she can sing soul like no one, she can also do classical, jazz, torch songs, you name it.

The powerhouse vocal everyone wants is probably best realized on her version of Adele's "Rolling In The Deep" which is entitled "Rolling In The Deep (The Areatha version)."  But even while some critics appreciate that vocal, they yet again miss the point.

Aretha's merging it with the Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."  Sporting both sexism and ignorance (the two do go hand-in-hand), many reviewers are claiming the track, as the pigs at Wikipedia put it, "contains an interpolation of 'Aint No Mountain High Enough' by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell."

Oh, Crapapedia, when will you learn to just shut your ignorant mouth?

Marvin and Tammi had a number of top ten pop singles: "Your Precious Love," "If I Could Build My Whole World Around You," "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" and "You're All I Need To Get By."  "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"?  Not one of their big hits.  It only made it to number 19.

It was a woman who took the song to number one -- on the R&B charts and the pop charts (on the pop charts for two weeks at number one) -- Diana Ross.

And it's that version, the slowed down and dramatic one, that Aretha's referencing in "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" -- and the first clue was the tempo -- leading one to wonder if Crapaperdia has ever even heard the Marvin and Tammi version or if they missed the title of Aretha's album Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics?

Like Judy Collins, Crapapedia can't stop ignoring women in their rush to celebrate men.

But Aretha's not playing that game.  She's secure enough to celebrate other women, to take a moment to get you to hear their hits one more time and, hopefully, catch something new in the songs you know and love.

With "Rolling In The Deep (The Aretha Version)" (already a hit on the hip-hop charts), Aretha's offering an ambitious take which  provides a new dimension to the song.  She does something similar when she covers Gloria Gaynor's hit "I Will Survive" and brings in Destiny's Child's "Survivor."

Aretha's saluting a wide range of women including Barbra Streisand -- whose "People" (from Funny Girl) is covered in a manner that honestly reminds me of Aretha's early seventies hit "Angel" -- and Dinah Washington -- "Teach Me Tonight" is Aretha coy and frank all at once, a vocal that makes you wonder if she's planning a jazz album as a follow up?

With Alicia Keys' "No One," she takes a reggae approach, one not explored since "Ain't Nobody Ever Loved You" on her Who's Zoomin' Who album.  As with that earlier effort, she demonstrates she excels in every music genre and this should be a follow up single because it's radio ready and then some.

The album is one success after another.

That includes the track "You Keep Me Hangin' On."  Her cover of the Diana Ross & the Supremes classic number one smash did not grab me immediately.  I think it takes 59 seconds into the track before she begins putting her own mark on it and it's only then that the song really starts to work.  By one minute and forty seconds, she's soaring.

And she does this, again, not by trying to copy Diana's vocals or compete with them, but by finding other spaces in the song.  It's what she's done at major moments throughout her career including when she recorded her first classic, "Respect," a song written by and already recorded by Otis Redding.

It's a classic album from start to finish and one that probably a lot of listeners doubted she had in her.  That's the problem with being the Queen of Soul, someone's always trying to topple you, hoping you'll abdicate your throne.

Instead, Aretha reclaims her reign and does so by celebrating women.  Judy Collins ought to be paying attention.  So should Barbra Streisand whose so-so new album suffers in part because she does twelve duets and every single one is with a man.  The woman whose biggest chart hit remains a duet with the late Donna Summer ["Enough Is Enough (No More Tears)"] and last significant pop chart duet is "Make No Mistake, He's Mine" with Kim Carnes, should have found, in twelve tracks, a chance to perform with a few women.  With feminists like Judy and Barbra, female artists are left isolated and invisible.

Aretha's Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics is not just an excellent album, it's also an antidote to too many men and, yes, women who work to render the art of women invisible.  In her sixth decade of recording, Aretha's part of the Guerrilla Girls movement and the woman who demanded respect proves that she can give her peers their proppers as well.