November 02, 2007

Album Review: Aretha Franklin - Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul

Quite literally a discovered treasure, a collection of vintage Aretha Franklin songs from her tenure at Atlantic Records had hitherto gone unnoticed for decades. Unearthed from the archives, this wealth of phenomenal music now comprises Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul.

While including demos, alternate mixes, and B-sides, this collection primarily consists of outtakes, which, for reasons inexplicable to anyone with the ability to perceive and appreciate sound, were left off their intended albums and not released on subsequent efforts.

A sweltering Muscle Shoals rhythm fuels many of the tracks, with Franklin’s inimitable voice blending secular themes with a gospel resolve. She digs deep on songs like “Talk To Me, Talk To Me” and “You’re Taking Up Another Man’s Place,” her exalted intonations galvanizing the music. She testifies like a smitten church girl on “I Need A Man (The To-To Song),” while a sly bass adds some sacred funk. And on “Heavenly Father,” this reverend’s daughter pleads for spiritual guidance in matters of the heart.

Erupting into a full-blown spiritual revival, Franklin duets with Ray Charles on “Ain’t But The One,” recorded during a 1973 television special in tribute to Duke Ellington. “It’s soul overload,” Franklin once said of her singing with Charles. “But give me more of where that comes from.” Amen.

One aspect of Franklin’s musicality that’s often overlooked yet fortunately highlighted on this collection is how she insulates a groove with the richness of her piano playing. On ballads like “It Was You” and “I Want To Be With You,” she takes her time while crooning over measured chord structures. Yet, on tracks with more thrust, like “The Happy Blues” and “Mr. Big,” she pounds on the piano like a sledgehammer, which suits her commanding vocal delivery. On “Mr. Big,” particularly, Lady Soul assertively moans, “I’ll rent me a room at school/If you’ll teach me all night.” Children, that’s not arithmetic she’s itching to learn.

While in no way detrimental to the overall quality of this collection, a discernible difference in sonic texture occurs on material not played by the accustomed Atlantic Records musicians. Specifically, eight songs originally recorded for Franklin’s album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), which Quincy Jones produced instead of Atlantic mainstay Jerry Wexler, sound more technically refined than the thicker tones heard on the other tracks. With their blues and jazz overtones, songs such as “Do You Know” and “Tree Of Life” are immediate standouts, illustrating Franklin’s versatility as a vocalist. Again, these songs merely portray a shift in production, not a flaw in performance.

Actually, one would struggle to find genuine fault with just about anything on this collection. Perhaps some of Franklin’s cover versions may not be to one’s liking, but that correlates more to personal preference rather than to the merit of the music. Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul offers an abundance of mind-blowing, soul-stirring songs. In short, it doesn’t get much better than this.