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Aretha Franklin’s “Aretha Arrives” Reviewed

Aretha Franklin changed the face of soul music earlier in 1967, with her 11th album, I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You, and despite injuring her hand (she performs “You Are My Sunshine” one handed on the piano), returns the same year: six months after recording “Respect,” she recorded “Baby, I Love You,” (not that one) in New York City’s Atlantic Studios (she’d done most of, not all of, her breakthrough at Muscle Shoals).

The result of a week that June, is Aretha Arrives, both a commercial and an artistic success which re-awoke Southern soul as a redress for women and the African-American nation. But listening to it all these years later, what is better about “You Are My Sunshine” compared to, say, her “Ol’ Man River” on Columbia Records? They seem to me to be co-equals. Even the bands, Aretha maintains Jimmy, Spooner, et al from the Muscle Shoals recordings, are better sure, but not that much better. And anyway, Aretha’s bands move from the vocals down, the musicians are less important, the rhythm section not do or die: either they keep up or they are gone.

Hard as you listen, “Baby, I Love You” and “Satisfaction” are not in the same league as “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You” and “Respect”. The four songs are mirror images of each other, thwarted desire and political activism both times. But “Satisfaction” -to read it as political fury is to misread it. Jagger’s lyric is teen angst, Aretha is political hand grenade, but why is she throwing it on this song? It isn’t a smooth fit and so while, self-evidently, Aretha slaughters it, the confusion as to where she is aiming is complete. Again, “RESPECT” became a civil rights and women’s anthem not because it was Southern soul but because Aretha sang it as though it was an anthem, it worked, “Satisfaction” not so much.

“Baby, I Love You” deserved its success (#4 on the Hot 100), today we would call it a banger and it is as close as a personification of Lady Soul’s still years away “submission isn’t easy for me”. She says she’ll come running, and her back up singers underline the opinion, and the song… well, Ronnie Shannon’s follow up to “I Never Loved A Man…” and it sounds it, it sounds like it came from the same pen: the same submission destroyed on a searing vocal of intense yearning that seems to close to a break out of anger. The purity of her sound, the ache and fall of her voice, and the swoop back up, puts directly into question her sexual willingness, her supplication as self propelled desire, into something that doesn’t just happen.If the two hits, that open and close the album, reflect back to the previous album, what exactly do we make of “96 Tears”? The original was organ derived psychedelic strange trip and Aretha rips it up and just sings her ass off and it becomes a soul manifesto.

Past those three songs and while everything is good, nothing is quite great. Essentially, she is mostly changing song arrangements to make em Southern Boogie, “You Are My Sunshine” and “That’s Life” would have fit on any of her Columbia albums and neither husband Ted White, House Producer Jerry Wexler or engineer Tom Dowd can do anything to change the situation and manifesto.

The point and the question is certainly not whether Aretha can sing each song to a standstill, she can, the question is why in an attempt to replicate a masterpiece did she not show more quality control on the material? The slow ones drag, the fast ones stomp, the album is a cross between Yeah!!!! And Never Loved A Man. Not bad, indeed, very, very good: immediate, intense, superbly sung and executed and on the money. Just not Never Loved A Man good..

Grade: B+

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