Aretha Franklin is musical royalty. She has songs that everyone knows, regardless of age, or interest in music in general. Respect, Chain of Fools and I Say a Little Prayer are tunes that will more than likely live on forever. But outside of the massive hits, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a single other Aretha Franklin song. At the very least, I’ve never consciously chosen to listen to a single other Aretha Franklin song. But surely, she’s bigger and better than those few hits. Which is something I’m hoping to find out with Aretha Arrives.
Opening with a soul interpretation of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, the first thing I realise about this period is the attitude towards cover songs. Nowadays, when someone covers an already famous song, it’s seen as a gimmick at best. Remember when Alien Ant Farm did Smooth Criminal with guitars? They’re the kinds of covers that get that reaction, and the bands’ reputations tend to suffer long after the novelty has worn off. But back in the 60s, it was like songs belonged to music in general, and as long as you put a unique spin on it, that was OK. And Franklin delivers a pretty great unique spin, belting out the familiar melody with a totally new life.
Next up is an exercise in opposites. There’s the in your face, take no prisoners brassiness of You Are My Sunshine. Before things get tender on Never Let Me Go. The latter proving that Franklin can be just as attention grabbing when she reins things in.
From its rolling bass line, to hyper horn section, to Franklin’s all-attitude vocals, 96 Tears is like soul music 101 for someone like me; A white dude from the other side of the world who was born several decades after people like Aretha Franklin perfected soul, with albums like Aretha Arrives.
That’s Life is another cover where knowing other versions well only makes Franklin’s take that much better. The words and melody might be familiar, but the soul she puts into it is like no other version I’ve ever heard. It’s a good sign of any album when it takes eight tracks before you hear anything even approaching underwhelming. And I Wonder is that underwhelmer. It’s not bad, it’s just not on the same level as everything else.
But she comes back hard with Aint Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around). Like 96 Tears, it’s accessible and awesome, complete with backing vocals that never back down, while also never overwhelming Franklin. Unfortunately, Going Down Slow isn’t just the title of the penultimate song, it’s also the perfect description. It starts nowhere, and manages it go somewhere even less interesting. Even Franklin’s amazing voice isn’t enough to save it.
Listening to Aretha Arrives, it’s proof that Aretha Franklin more than deserves her reputation as one of the greatest voices in modern music history. It’s also proof that giving an old song a fresh arrangement can give it new life. But what makes Aretha Franklin such a legend and Aretha Arrives such a great album isn’t anything as tangible as that. She just has something unidentifiable that makes her impossible to ignore. I know I’m not breaking any news here, but it took me listing to an entire album to understand she’s amazing, while knowing I don’t understand why she’s so amazing at all.