Music

Aretha Franklin: Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul

Zeth Lundy

Two-disc compilation offers up a wealth of demos, outtakes, alternate versions, and B-sides from Franklin's 1966-1974 Atlantic sessions.


Aretha Franklin

Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2007-10-16
UK Release Date: 2007-10-15
Amazon
iTunes

You can spend a lifetime hunting down soul music obscurities and championing the underdogs of R&B, but those dogged efforts will never change the fact that Aretha Franklin can sing circles around the lot of 'em. Sure, you can argue that Bettye LaVette's voice is grittier, Candi Staton's more honeyed, or that Bettye Swann's country-soul is more lonesome, and, given the circumstances and the song, you'd likely be right. Franklin, however, with her impeccable phrasing and churchy fire, with her emotional investment in a vocal's equivalent of mise en scène, will always be the trump suit in soul's deck -- there's a reason, after all, why she's the Queen.

It's easy to locate Franklin's influence amongst the younger generations of singers, but at the same time, it's obvious how far the divas-in-training have strayed from her lead. (The effect of other genre-dominating divas, e.g. Whitney Houston, is partly to blame for this, but that's a whole 'nother story.) The torch-bearing soul sisters of the new millennium -- those who pander calculated bombasts for the likes of corporate radio and American Idol -- have swollen Franklin's technical deftness into scale-molesting acrobatics of cold distance. Franklin's phrasing and interpretive daring aren't products of technique alone; hers is a style that mixes procedure with gut reaction, punctuated by an endless queue of exclamations (Ooh! Yeah!), repeated words, and impulsive melodic shifts that suggest well-worn narratives behind the lyrical front. It's almost as if singers have been reprogrammed to bludgeon us with indubitable skill instead of appealing to the more discreet aspects of our communicative nature.

It's fascinating to hear the genesis of Franklin's musical dialogue on an early demo version of "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You". The song is sparsely performed (Franklin, at the piano, is accompanied only by bass and drums) and not yet immaculately arranged; the refrain's melody hasn't been perfected, nor has the titular line's vocal been isolated from the instrumentation. It's a shuffling, gospel-infected rendition of a song we know by heart, and yet Franklin's investigation of its possibilities turns it into a completely new experience. Likewise, the original demo recording of "Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)" is less urgent than the album's fully arranged version, allowing room for Franklin to mull the words around in her mouth in order to find out how the dialogue can best be conveyed to an audience.

Those demos are a few of the many rarities available on Rhino's new Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, a two-disc collection of demos, outtakes, alternate versions, and B-sides Franklin cut for Atlantic between the years of 1966-1974. Rare & Unreleased is an insightful addendum to Franklin's greatest and most prolific period as an artist, and while its selections fail to outclass that period's official releases, it offers some small gems and curiosities that underscore the strengths of their better-known counterparts.

Franklin's ability to personalize and structurally transform the songs of others comes through on her interpretations of Paul Anka's "My Way" (a display of passionate resolve without the sentimentality), Holland-Dozier-Holland's "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (in which organ and a reconfigured melody turn a strict pop-march into a funky dish), and Paul McCartney's "The Fool on the Hill". The latter is an intriguing experiment gone awry; Franklin's churched-up rhythms collide with the seasick movements of McCartney's melody in a manner too awkward for pop music. (Franklin covered a lot of McCartney in the late '60s, and fared better with more soul-friendly material like "Let It Be" and "Eleanor Rigby".) Other highlights include "So Soon", an outtake from the Aretha Arrives sessions with a near-breathless vocal take that speaks to the heartache of the lyric, "Talk to Me, Talk to Me", a jazzy Soul '69 outtake in which Franklin phrases her lines like her idol Sam Cooke, and "I Need a Strong Man", an outtake from the Young, Gifted, and Black record that puts gospel stride in some wah-wah pants.

The surplus of ballads on Disc one is somewhat problematic -- that's not to say Franklin isn't a great singer of ballads (listen to how she lets loose atop the simmering tempo of a song like "The Letter"), but the sequencing can make for a sluggish listening experience at times. Perhaps even more problematic, however, is Disc two's abundance of later disco-adjacent material from albums like the 1973 Quincy Jones-produced Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (represented by a whopping eight outtakes) and 1974's Let Me in Your Life. The songs aren't awful (though we could do without another cover of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne") and are quite nearly redeemed by "Ain't but the One", an extended gospel rave-up with Ray Charles, but their gloss and pop-world assimilation can't match the sense of discovery sparked by the earlier recordings. In those better moments, she isn't just playing the part of the best, she's defining it.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image