Aretha Franklin’s later career has to be one of the most frustrated in pop music. Never has such a gigantic and prolific talent wasted her gifts on such undeserving material. The soul legend has been in the news of late more for her personal and health issues than her music, which is a shame. Her new album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics won’t return the singer to her peak years, but it is a remarkably consistent set of covers that make up one of her most solid releases in years.
The biggest noise from the record came from her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” – and she does a fine job. The song is still so fresh in our minds, that the cover feels more like a stunt to grab attention from potential new buyers, but Franklin more than sells the song. Another youngun, Alicia Keys, has one of her songs – “No One” on the set list, as well. The reggae/dance hall-lite treatment works in the song’s favor, as does Franklin’s playful singing.
And while it’s nice that the diva considers Adele and Alicia Keys as “classic divas” what we’re really looking for is Aretha’s take on her peers: Barbra, Diana, Gladys. Well Streisand’s classic “People” is given Franklin’s patented torchy interpretation, giving more gravitas to the song than it really deserves (I never was a huge fan of the song). Diana Ross, possibly the only true stylistic, cultural, and artistic rival of Franklin’s, gets two inclusions: on “Rolling in the Deep” Franklin mashes up Adele’s hit tune with Ross’ classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and takes her listeners to church. She also covers “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Ross’ number one hit with the Supremes. Instead of faithfully recreated the Motown sound, Franklin chooses to remake the song as a brisk dance number. This is actually Franklin’s second recording of the song (the first time she sang the song was an aborted track on her 1970 Spirit in the Dark album).
I’m glad Franklin is looking to dance music, a rarely explored genre for the singer, but on this album, she’s embracing her inner disco diva with some choice club numbers including her cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” which sounds very much like the late Whitney Houston’s house remake (which is appropriate as Franklin was Houston’s godmother). And even if Franklin is paying homage to her fellow divas, she never pretends to be self-effacing, and mashes “I’m Every Woman” with an unnecessary redo of her classic hit “Respect.” Her take on “I Will Survive” is good, though, the song has been covered too many times, and Franklin’s voice has noticably aged and fails to convey the camp hysterics of the song’s lyrics, but she does sell some attitude when she includes a silly snippet of Destiny Child’s “Survivor” in the song (it appears as if she loves to pair up songs with similar themes).
As credible as her dance forays are, it’s when she turns to true soul and jazz that the album is at its strongest. No one will forget Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” but Franklin’s version is suitably soulful (though the backup singers sound strangely tinny). The highlight of the album is a beautiful version of the standard “Teach Me Tonight,” which has a gorgeous bass and string percussion, and Franklin’s performance is masterful (here’s hoping that for her next venture into the studio, she records a whole album of pop/jazz standards). While initially jarring, her supper club take on Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a silly one-off that feels like a novelty (and rides roughshod over the song’s devastating lyrics), but it’s very well-performed, and the singer sounds right at home in front of a lush orchestra.
For a singer of Franklin’s age, her voice remains strong. Time, wear, and a reported chain-smoking habit has thinned and wizened her instrument, and at times it takes on a harsh, shrill tone, but overall, Franklin’s still masterful at marrying that sweet spot of secular and sacred, when pop and gospel join together to create that unmistakable voice.