Saturday, September 12, 2015

Aretha Four: After the Thrill is Gone

It’s the turn of the decade (1970) and Aretha, while doing fine on the soul charts, has her string of of pop smashes are a year or two behind her.

So what does a singing phenomenon (an overused word, but no more apt than here) do next? Get down to work on some new music. Pure and simple.

Instead of the bright colors of prior album covers, this one’s grainy black and white. And instead of Aretha all done up or dressed to the nines, here I can’t even see any makeup.

As for the music, the first thing I notice is the sorrow of the opening track - “Don’t Play That Song”, which I’m ashamed to say I was unfamiliar with. (Not Mrs. Jaybee, though. She seems to know everything. She just doesn’t blog about it. Don’t tell her I said that.)

It isn’t overwhelming, like “Respect” or “Natural Woman”, Just emotional in the best sense. That wonderful  gospel piano (which Aretha plays herself) is the key to it all. As sad as this tale of heartbreak is, you’re uplifted and singing along by the end.

“The Thrill is Gone” is even bluesier than B.B. King’s version.  Aretha’s batting average on covers remains high! (Ah, but is it a cover? She actually recorded it around the same time as BB.) All she’s missing is his guitar.

“Pullin’” is mid-tempo, piano-based gospel-soul, with great backup vocals. It’s very representative of the album overall.

And it’s here that the strategy of this album becomes clear. Aretha’s no longer interested in blowing the roof off your house, She prefers to just fill it with joy. Which means she’s dropped the volume a bit, leaning more on gospel than soul this time. 

Aretha is now "making an album" as opposed to recording a bunch of songs that may or may not end up together on the same record. She’s aiming to making every cut count and almost succeeds.

“You and Me” is slow, lovely pop-soul (no, she’s not done with soul). “Honestly I Do” is slow and bluesy but a bit forgettable.

The title song is anything but. But again, the goal isn’t to overpower you, but to sweep you along. And it works brilliantly.

“When the Battle is Over” is rock and roll, pure and simple.

The remainder of the record gets back to mid-tempo piano-driven gospel-ish soul. These cuts are not quite on the level of the first half of the record, but I feel like I’m just getting to know them.

She finishes up with her cover of “Why I Sing the Blues” and again she rivals the original.

So how does this record stand up against the classics?

Not knowing any of the songs on a record ahead of time can actually be an advantage for me, because I’m hearing the whole thing fresh, from start to finish. In that respect this is my favorite Aretha album because all the pleasures are brand new.

And Aretha proves (not that she needed to) that she’s in it for the long haul.


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