Cutouts Gone Wild!: Aretha Franklin, “Aretha” (1986)
Often, when researching potential albums for this column — yes, I do research; quit laughing, fuckers — I’m surprised by what’s in print. (I’m looking at you, Taylor Dayne’s Soul Dancing.) This is partly due to the rise of digital outlets through which artists can “reissue” their works, as well as the neverending stream of fly-by-night reissue labels that’s forever buying rights to cult classic albums, but there’s also a longstanding tradition of spectacularly poor catalog management in the record industry.
Anyway, on quite a few occasions, I’ve taken an album down from the shelf, blown the dust off, and prepared to write a Cutouts Gone Wild! post about it, only to find it isn’t out of print. This week’s entry, however, marks the first time I’ve been shocked to discover that an album is out of print. (Not coincidentally, the album in question was released by Arista, the same bunch of goons that has continued to sell Soul Dancing.) If you’re anything like me, finding out that any of Aretha’s post-Columbia albums have slipped off the line is a little like watching Denise Richards play a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough: It doesn’t compute, and it’s sort of enraging besides. Yes, Aretha has turned in more than her share of clunkers, but she’s the goddamn Queen of Soul, and even her worst music is required listening for the human race.
Well. Okay. Not her worst music. But 1986’s Aretha — Franklin’s third album with that title, and otherwise known as Aretha 3-D or Aretha III: Season of the Witch — is not her worst. Matter of fact, it’s actually quite good.
If I sound surprised, it’s because I am; I had only dim memories of this record, and most of them centered around “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” the duet with George Michael that became Franklin’s second #1 pop hit (and biggest-selling single overall). Having never been overly fond of George Michael, I’ve always sort of scoffed at “Waiting,” but listening to it now, I’m forced to admit that it’s really sort of perfect. I mean this sincerely; from a songwriting perspective, the tune almost approaches Great American Songbook levels of craft and polish. You can get it plenty of other places, so I’m not linking to it here, but why not embed the video?
I also remembered this album’s cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (download), but I’d forgotten that Keith Richards produced it, and that it’s kind of awesome. The rest of the album has no shortage of ’80s sheen, but on this track, Aretha gets to wail with an honest-to-God rock combo (most of the Stones, Chuck Leavell, and Steve Jordan, plus the Queen herself on piano). Listening to that voice frequently makes me want to weep, and this song is no exception.
Actually quite a bit of the album is admirably solid, particularly for mid ’80s R&B; aside from a pair of clunkers (the ballads “Do You Still Remember” and “If You Need My Love Tonight,” a duet with Larry Graham), it’s as good as you’d hope for a Top 20 collection that was just shy of going platinum when it was taken out of print, along with seemingly the rest of Aretha’s Arista catalog (minus Who’s Zoomin’ Who). Franklin and producer Narada Michael Walden meant to recapture the lightning they’d bottled with Zoomin’, and they succeeded — it’s a pop record, but it’s got enough of Aretha’s signature fire to elevate the material (some of which, like “Rock-A-Lott [download], would sound downright pedestrian coming out of any other vocalist).
Aretha even produces a pair of tracks (and thanks herself for it in the liner notes), one of which, the self-penned “He’ll Come Along” (download), is about as good as mainstream soul music got in the ’80s. Hell, even Andy Warhol got in on the fun — the album’s cover art was apparently his last commissioned work.
Her renaissance was short-lived — 1989’s Through the Storm was a half-hearted piece of product, and the less said about 1991’s embarrassingly titled What You See Is What You Sweat, the better — but she scored another gold record at the tail end of the ’90s, and I wouldn’t rule her out for more; she’s apparently working on a new album, to be released by her own label, the humbly named Aretha Records. Perhaps she’ll rectify this travesty of musical justice by reissuing those Arista albums her own damn self.