She makes me feel: The best of Aretha Franklin

aretha-franklin-honors-carole-ki

The spending of money is indivisible from the re-creation of a past. Record buyers who turned thirty sometime after, say, 1980, spent their dough updating their catalogs buying shiny discs with mixes as dense as a sugar cube on a drill press. Listening to Aretha Franklin roar through “Freeway of Love” in the summer of 1985 was depressing even as a ten-year-old, for the production showed how nostalgia is also indivisible from acquiescence.

Often a Force of Nature is an afternoon drizzle that in knocking out power pisses off hundreds on a city block. From the honorable failure of a Curtis Mayfield experiment and a George Benson duet to her Luther Vandross collaborations, Franklin flitted from context to context after her early seventies peak, upturning rocks in search of a pop crossover as ethereal as 1974’s “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” The age demanded anadrol, and she yielded; she recorded an aural reckoning of that yielding. Meanwhile fans looked to marooned self-written and self-produced tracks like “Integrity” for, well, that. I have friends who stick up for “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” Good intentions make for bad rock. Me, I can’t hide the conclusion that through most of this era Franklin’s holding her nose. With their gospel inflections the piano runs in “Spirit in the Dark” forge a tangible sense of community like the Eurythmics hit doesn’t. And if I myself succumb to nostalgia, “A Rose is Still a Rose,” recorded during the Puffy era, is a redress.

Which brings me to the lodestar of Aretha Franklin’s greatness. Besides the spunk of the Keith Richards production (dampened, I must add, by a hamfisted mix), I couldn’t figure out what I enjoyed about her forgotten “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” cover. I settled on her piano, which to his credit Richards insisted she play, a rarity in the DX-7 years. Something about the friction between fingers and keys coaxed out intonations and subtleties in her vocals that isolation at a mike stand could not. David Ritz:

I mean, when you listen to “Dr. Feelgood”…it’s evident throughout this album that when you hear the Aretha that’s connected to the piano, you hear a stronger vocalist and a more emotionally forthcoming [artist]. It’s almost like when she touches the keyboard, something opens up in her voice.

I love Spirit in the Dark most because she invites the audience to share the intimacy between herself and her piano and in so doing creates a communal space. Not even B.B. King wrung such weary pathos out of “The Thrill is Gone.”

Here are Aretha Franklin’s best. Despite the cavils, I salvaged bits from an ignoble era. 1983’s Vandross-composed “Get It Right” gets it right even though not many people who aren’t Thomas Inskeep don’t agree. Ten months ago she showed her audience the power that is still uniquely hers to command at the Kennedy Center Honors. I don’t mind Carole King’s hysterics; I like to think that what inspired them was the spectacle of a septuagenarian performing as if the umbilical tie between art and artist fed the audience too. If Rick Rubin didn’t like rock so much, he would’ve already tried to produce an Aretha + piano album yesterday. Time’s running out. Not many mink coats are left in her.

1. Rock Steady
2. Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)
3. Spirit in the Dark
4. Get It Right
5. When This Battle is Over
6. (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
7. Call Me
8. The Thrill is Gone
9. A Rose is Still a Rose
10. Daydreaming
11. First Snow in Kokomo
12. Integrity
13. Ain’t No Way
14. Dr. Feelgood
15. Jimmy Lee
16. Drown in My Tears
17. People Get Ready
18. Don’t Play That Song
19. Here We Go Again
20. One Way Ticket
21. Another Night
22. Every Girl (Wants My Guy)
23. A Deeper Love
24. Jumpin’ Jack Flash
25. Something He Can Feel

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