On her 39th album, soul legend Aretha Franklin takes on a seemingly easy and obvious undertaking: an album of cover songs.
She’s sang a lot of covers in her storied career and transformed most of them, but she has a few challenges here on Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.
The obstacles are on a few of the choices and the medley format of those particular songs. Otherwise, a Franklin album is cause for some sort of celebration.
She gets down to serious business early on with her rendition of Rolling in the Deep and Midnight Train to Georgia. Her inimitable voice gets free and instinctively acrobatic on the Adele cover and it’s clear that Franklin has an affinity for that tune, which is itself a fine example of British soul. Rolling in the Deep is a tough song to transform, but Franklin does her thing and voilà: it’s a gospel-hued rave up.
Closer to the original is the Gladys Knight and the Pips song, Midnight Train to Georgia. That is more in the time frame of Franklin’s heyday. She brings a deep sentimentality to a classic leaving- town tune, sounding decades younger than her 72 years.
A couple of tracks buckle under the weight of the slick karaoke medley treatment that Franklin and producer Clive Davis mete out to them. Tacking a Destiny’s Child hook onto I Will Survive adds cliché to a track that runs out of gas long before it ends – a good idea that sounds contrived. Likewise with I’m Every Woman/Respect.
An unusual choice of a Barbara Streisand song (People) steers the course away from Discoland and back to the diva’s realm. On People, Franklin adds grit and jazz-inflected pathos to a song that celebrates maudlinism and sentimentality.
On No One, Franklin brings her Baptist roots to an inspired version of the Alicia Keys’ hit, complete with churchy background singers and a reggae treatment. It is a standout track on the album as is the old 1960s’ chestnut, You Keep Me Hangin’ On. It is a less than obvious selection that highlights Franklin’s unstoppable gale force phrasing and the ever present power her voice has on tap.
– Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon-based musician who reviews new album releases for The Morning Star.