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Aretha Franklin’s “Laughing On The Outside” Reviewed

I am well and truly baffled and I realize it isn’t 1963, and I realize I am not working for Columbia Records, and I realize Aretha Franklin can sing anything she put her mind to, and if it had been in the 1970s or 1980s, I wouldn’t be as confused: it would be simply Aretha stretching.. But it was 1963, and on Laughing On The Outside  a 21 year old woman with a voice born for r&b, was singing jazz arrangements of stuff like “If Ever I Would Leave You” and it is just such a mistake, it’s almost insulting, it feels like racial profiling. Laughing On The Outside was Aretha’s  least successful album to date and IT DIDN’T CHART IN THE  R&B CHARTS. It didn’t do anything at all. The greatest soul singer (if not the greatest singer) of all times stiffed big time on this really, really average jazz pop standard arrangements by Johnny Mersey.  When does he go away? How bad are the arrangement’s? Even Aretha’s self-penned “I Wonder (Where Are You Tonight)” is a slow draggy string thing, like it had just crawled out of the 1950s.

Not all of it is a simply bad idea, the album opens with a jazz blues take on “I Wanna Be Around” that gives Aretha a little time to strut herself even while the slush of strings and horns tries to sink her, on the bridge you can here Aretha  pushing the edge of her voice, and the borderline hipsterness is arresting and she is never flat, never uninspired, but she adss nothing to these lush life strings and humming melody caress, she sings them fine but she doesn’t sing them well enough to leave a lasting impression. You can hear that  she can sing most anything, from a whisper to a, well, not a whisper, her control is so great that when she scats for just a coupla bars on “Say It Isn’t So” she takes the song elsewhere. Aretha’s could sing from G2 to E6, she doesn’t here because it is not required. These songs aren’t bland, “Until The Real Thing Comes Along” is a very moving Sammy Cahn song, and given the chance, she could sing it under the table, but restraint here is complete: instead of jumping on it, she meets it half way.

This is the biggest question mark here. If Aretha’s point of reference for fans is a hard edge, we will have none of that, tough mindedness in the face of disrespect from men or society or both, none of that is on view here, Really? “Make Someone Happy”? Why would they hand off that? And I know, because I was as well, that you were eagerly awaiting her version of “Solitude,” Unfortunately, the strings are horrible and Billie Holiday is light years ahead of her, as every word of “Solitude” by Billie is like a razor on a wrist, she just soars but in a downward spiral, Aretha is a better singer than Billie but not in 1963 and definitely not on “Solitude”. The wrong song for the wrong woman.

Perhaps it is enough to note that her “Ol’ Man River,” left off the album, would have been Laughing On The Outside’s best moment. And that was because, finally, the strings are replaced by piano (Leon Russel played on the album, though I am not sure he is the hero on the song), the pace is sparkling, snappy, she might mean the tired/bored axiom  because she sure doesn’t sound it, and let’s be sure to mention, she sounds right in the heart of life, her “Well” is just wonderful. Clearly, Aretha was not the crying on the inside type, she was crying for the heaven’s to shake to their foundation type singer.

Grade: B-



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