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Monday, September 22, 2003  

Entertainment: Aretha's new release reaps mixed reviews

Aretha Franklin has released a new CD, So Damn Happy. Some trendsetters, including Rolling Stone's Barry Walters, say though listenable, this production pales in comparison to 1988's hip hop influenced effort.

The queen of soul is still the Queen. But that doesn't mean the material on Aretha Franklin's latest album is deserving of her crown. Last time around, on 1998's A Rose Is Still a Rose, Lauryn Hill, Puff Daddy and other hot hitmakers plied fresh beats and old-school samples to aim Aretha's R&B at young ears. Here, Mary J. Blige appears on and co-writes two of the hipper tracks, "Holdin' On" and "No Matter What," but both come up short in the melody, hook and rhythm departments, and those deficits afflict much of the rest. Ten different producers replace Rose's hip-hop energy with an adult-contemporary slickness that sometimes makes the sixty-one-year-old legend's voice seem shrill. Her Highness deserves more r-e-s-p-e-c-t than this.

Walters gave the album only two stars.

Jon Pareles of the New York Times amplifies Walter's criticism in a review of a recent concert in which Franklin reprised some of the songs that made her deservedly famous.

Aretha Franklin works by her own regal whims. On Saturday night at Radio City Music Hall, she operated in a realm far removed from most performers' attempts to please a crowd: a realm of long memory, odd caprices and ambivalence about the confines of pop. Listeners are welcome to admire the way her voice dives into sultriness, dodges the beat, cascades through long melismas or rushes heavenward. But where most soul and rhythm-and-blues turns listeners into a congregation, Ms. Franklin leaves them on the sidelines as spectators.

. . .The Baptist church music that Ms. Franklin grew up singing is never far from her best performances. She sat down at the piano to splash gospel tremolos in the title song of her new album, "So Damn Happy" (Arista), and in a version of "Dr. Feelgood" that was pure gospel music with earthy lyrics. She was joined by the Rev. Michael Jemison for the hymn "Precious Memories," and sang rings around him. Soon afterward, she topped "Freeway of Love" with a gospel reprise, shouting, "Jesus!"

It wouldn't be an Aretha show without peculiar moments. She suddenly demanded a handkerchief from her band, complained that Barbra Streisand would already have a handkerchief at hand and tossed away a proffered face cloth. She noted problems with the sound system by saying she hadn't attended the afternoon rehearsal. She took a mid-set break while her (unnecessary) dancers did a number to a recording of Nelly's "Hot in Herre," not a favorite of her graying audience. But when Ms. Franklin sang, she earned every whim.

I believe Pareles gets very close to why Franklin isn't embraced as fully as she should be when he alludes to the way she can distance herself from people. It is a theme one sees in her life off-stage as well as on. The distancing appears to have begun after the violent assault on her beloved father in 1979 and his subsequent years as an invalid Franklin helped care for. Experiencing traumatic events can lead to hyper-vigilance and distrust of people. However, I could be wrong about causality. Her sister, Carolyn, says what people often interpret as standoffishness by Franklin is actually shyness. The impact of the insularity has sometimes been seen in legal troubles for the Queen. A continual problem has been neglect of her properties in Detroit and failure to pay taxes on them -- something that could be easily solved if she paid more attention to her mail and delegated a trusted person to manage her real estate.

Not all reviewers are dissin' Franklin. Josh Tyrangiel of Time is enthralled.

With just one song, "Respect," Franklin introduced feminism to popular music, but she has also sung about lesser things convincingly -- like riding on a freeway of love in a pink Cadillac -- and being drawn through destiny to duet partner George Michael. She can basically do anything, and So Damn Happy, Franklin's first album in five years, proves the point again. So Damn Happy doesn't have a single great song, and it doesn't matter.

Most of the album is structured to let Franklin do her trademark thing: sing about making it through heartache with her faith intact. The Queen of Soul never really did melody: like an expert surgeon who leaves the nurses to stitch up, it's a little beneath her. Instead she rises and plunges over songs like "The Only Thing Missin'" and "Ain't No Way." It's a style the Mariah Careys of the world have copied and perverted into a circus act, but Franklin actually invests her rumbles and squeaks with authentic emotion.

The production on So Damn Happy is modern, minimalist and first-rate. Franklin has always had a great ear for contemporary music, which is why she has appeared in the Top 10 recently and James Brown hasn't. She gets Mary J. Blige to contribute some fine backing vocals and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to offer up a nice song and -- presto! -- Aretha is radio-ready. It doesn't take much to make the timeless timely.

If you have seen the gorgeous cover photo for So Damn Happy, you may have exclaimed, "Bravo! She lost the weight!" as I did. For several years, Franklin's petite frame has carried enough pounds to make her morbidly obese, threatening her life. Those of us who care about her wish she would lose enough weight to reduce the risk to her health. Furthermore, she is a very attractive woman when thin or buxom. Unfortunately, it tain't so. The cover photo is the product of digital wizardry, not successful dieting.

I'm willing to drop the dough for the Queen's latest, regardless of Rolling Stone's two-star rating. In these times of paid and boosted MP3 downloads, we may be forgetting that it used to be common for listeners to buy albums knowing they were imperfect. The songs that soared were adequate justification, and, one could learn much about what works musically and what doesn't from the selections that didn't quite make it. That standard is one I'm comfortable with.

9:20 AM