"ARETHA." Aretha Franklin. Arista.
"We rode the freeways in '85," writes Aretha Franklin in the liner notes to her new album. "Now . . . let's get in overdrive!"
That's a characteristically nervy boast from a singer for whom the title Lady Soul has always seemed too limiting. But despite the boast, "Aretha" finds her cruising in that pink Cadillac at just about the same speed as last year.
With hits like "Freeway of Love," 1985's "Who's Zoomin' Who" LP was the break-through Aretha had been threatening for years. In Narada Michael Walden she found a producer who coaxed a terrific performance out of her and also made her the kind of radio staple she hadn't been for a decade.
The changes from last year's model are few: The new record is more focused than its predecessor; it has more rock 'n' roll, courtesy of Keith Richards and Ron Wood; and it also lacks anything as instantly infectious as "Freeway of Love" or as stunning as "Sweet Bitter Love."
But the album overcomes its flaws the same way Aretha at her best has always overcome her lapses of taste: with a voice so gritty, committed and simply soulful that the trappings--and sometimes even the songs themselves--hardly matter. Amazing on an off-day, she's unstoppable when she's this delighted at her rejuvenation--just ask George Michael and Larry Graham, both of whom badly oversing when faced with the daunting prospect of duetting with Aretha.
The voice rescues routine material like "Rock-a-Lott" and "An Angel Cries" and fashions classic Aretha workouts from "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the LP's highlight--a version of the 1940s pop standard "Look to the Rainbow."
Most of the new songs can't hold a candle to "Respect," "Chain of Fools" or other Aretha classics (many of them collected on Atlantic's new two-record "30 Greatest Hits"). But tunes like "Jimmy Lee" are unquestionably great radio songs--and since that's all we asked of "Respect" when it was released, maybe we should simply be thankful that Aretha's still delivering the goods 19 years later.