Counterbalance No. 130: Aretha Franklin's 'Lady Soul'
You told me to leave you alone. My father said come on home. My doctor said take it easy. But the pull of the 130th most acclaimed album of all-time is much too strong. A 1968 soul classic is this week's Counterbalance.
Klinger: OK, so here we are with another slab of impossibly sweet 1960s R&B from the Queen of Soul, and I am at somewhat of a loss to talk about it. Much like our previous foray into Aretha Franklin’s work, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Lady Soul is so consistently good and so completely worthy that it's hard to even think about covering it. It's like when Michael Jordan won an MVP award or when Meryl Streep gets nominated for an Oscar—it just seems like a given.
Sure, it’s no surprise that the mathematical wizard behind the Great List has given us another Aretha Franklin album to grapple with. Lady Soul is brilliant. Aretha Franklin is great. Pretty much what we talk about when we talk about soul music. "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman"? Iconic! Is there much more to say? I suppose there has to be. So take it away, Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn: I think you covered it pretty well, Klinger. Normally I would go after an album just for the sport. But not Lady Soul. I can't. I just can't. Franklin's voice is unstoppable. The Muscle Shoals contingent backing her are on top of their game -- a step up from their work on I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which is hard to top despite my prior weak complaints. Let's chalk up another win for Franklin, call it a week, and go get a taco.
We can just fill out the rest with some artisanal filler text. It’s full of buzz words and hipsterism. No one will notice we are gone. "Blog narwhal squid, DIY carles disrupt williamsburg single-origin coffee portland whatever american apparel swag trust fund direct trade. Post-ironic fixie wolf four loko kale chips, occupy trust fund synth ...”
Klinger: Hold it right there, Mendelsohn. Back that up for a minute. Don't start trying to hoodoo me with your Brooklyn jive. Did you say that Lady Soul is a step up from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You? I mean, I get that the tracks on this album are a bit more energetic, but I Never Loved a Man was a revelation. Lady Soul is great from start to finish—in fact, years of hearing "Chain of Fools" had eroded the song's impact for me until I really leaned in this time to hear it—but it lacks that sense of discovery that we talk about on occasion. It's that feeling of hearing a completely new approach to song craft that separates the towering achievements (the Top 100) from the regular great albums.
Mendelsohn: Aww, c'mon! Tacos, Klinger, tacos! No? Fine.
Yeah, I said it. Lady Soul is a step up from I Never Loved a Man. I Never Loved a Man was the album that broke down the door for Franklin and every female artist to follow. It was a record that wowed the criterati and deservedly is lodged in the Top 100. Franklin brought a new approach to her music that completely transformed the way future artists—and not just women -- approached their work. You'll get no argument from me on those points.
Lady Soul was round two—a record that saw Franklin grow as an artist and really broaden her artistic sensibilities as she pushed further into the realm of rock and rhythm and blues. Lady Soul has rock and roll swagger. Look at the cover of I Never Loved a Man. What do you see? Aretha Franklin done up beautifully, floating in the clouds. That's what you get on that record. A heavenly piece of pop and soul that floats on piano strains from song to song. Now look at Lady Soul. You have Franklin, looking just as fine, absolutely radiating rock and roll swagger. And it shows on the record. "Chain of Fools"? More intimidating than "Respect". "Groovin"? Positively salacious. "Money Won't Change You?" Puts the godfather of soul to shame. "Niki Hoeky" and "Come Back Baby" fill out the rock quotient of this record. Add "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and "Since You've Been Gone," and this record is stronger than I Never Loved a Man in almost every corner.
This album rocks harder and the Muscle Shoals contingent finally get to flex their muscles. How can that not be considered a step up?
Klinger: Well, that's fair, I reckon. This could end up being a little like arguing over who our least favorite fascist is. I do want to go back to something you said about "Money Won't Change You" as it relates to James Brown's original. When you compare JB's version to Aretha's, you really understand what we mean when we say an artist makes a song her own. Brown's version is a relentless push on the main riff, as compact and tightly wound as the man himself. Aretha and her band give everything room to breathe—there's an ease and lightness to her style that makes it feel like a different song altogether.
And while I'm on the subject, I think a lot of that comes down to her dazzling interplay with her background vocalists, Aretha's sisters Carolyn and Erma (who recorded the original—and to my ears definitive—version of “Piece of My Heart”) plus the always-welcome Sweet Inspirations. All throughout Lady Soul, these women comment, cajole, push, and pull their way through Aretha's lead, bringing each song to heights that they might not have reached on their own. Listen to the way they drop a perfectly placed "busted" into "Niki Hoeky" or the way they subtly reference the Mamas and the Papas in "Groovin'". As I understand it, a lot of those arrangements were assembled by Carolyn Franklin—if that's the case then I'd say she's as much an architect of Aretha's sound as Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd.
Mendelsohn: Behind every king there is a king-maker, or queen-maker in Aretha's case. As much as Wexler and Dowd did to really help bring Aretha into her own, the one constant standing behind her was always her younger sister Carolyn. So you might be onto something there, especially when you consider just how much of the backing vocal work acts as its own instrument throughout this record. Listening to "Niki Hoeky", there is no doubt these ladies have no problem holding their own space within the arrangements as Carolyn and the Sweet Inspirations play a call and response game with the horn section, outshining them at every turn. On "Chain of Fools", it is Aretha's older sister, Erma, anchoring the backing vocals with her signature deep and husky voice, working as a perfect counterpoint to the soaring vocals of Aretha and the sugary inflection of the Sweet Inspiration.
And while it was not on the original recording, the unedited version of "Chain of Fools" truly is something special. The extended, bluesy intro that sees Aretha doing a slow dance with the guitar really changes the tone of that song, making it just a tad bit darker and all that much sweeter once they get rolling.
Klinger: Mm, yes, that is a quality bonus there. But I had another thought that occurred to me throughout all of this. This whole Counterbalance project compels us to spend most of our time listening to some of the greatest albums ever made, often to the exclusion of much else. But part of understanding what makes art great (to my way of thinking) is to take time to compare it to lesser works and see what sets the truly great apart—and that includes works by more workaday artists and relatively minor efforts by performers within the canon. As we spend so much time with masterpieces, it's easy to forget that some of these artists have made a few missteps along the way. Much as it's instructive to watch Meryl Streep in It's Complicated or watch Michael Jordan play baseball, we can also look to Aretha Arrives, which was released between I Never Loved a Man and Lady Soul, for insight.
Aretha Arrives was released to tepid reviews, and we seldom hear much about it today. Aretha takes on a few rock covers ("Satisfaction", "96 Tears") and seems to be struggling to get her head around them. Overall, her singing comes across as more mannered, as if she's basically an assembly line worker applying a coating of Aretha over whatever comes in front of her. It's not bad; it's just not great. But when you hear it, you gain a better understanding of what it means to have Aretha and her band firing on all cylinders. Relistening to Lady Soul after that marks it as the revelation that it is, and must have seemed back in 1968. Of course, it's also a thrilling testament to her talents on its own.