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* * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty : : The Queen of Soul Returns to Church

November 22, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

* * * 1/2 ARETHA FRANKLIN. "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism." Arista.

"This is not a 'program,' this is a worship service," intones the Rev. Jesse Jackson, interrupting the music for some speechifying on Aretha Franklin's new live double album. In so many words, then, we're not to take Franklin's first gospel effort in 15 years as a mere entertainment --this is church .

And "One Lord" has plenty of documentary aspects that, for some listeners, may belabor the point: The set was recorded at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where Franklin's father is pastor. And generously interspersed amid all Aretha and friends' singing are plenty of speeches, introductions and invocations, commemorating the Queen of Soul's return to her family and roots as well as presumably higher spiritual purposes.

Brace yourself for no fewer than three vinyl appearances by Rev. Jackson, one of them a ten-minute speech. Fading out nearly every song (sometimes just as they're really building up steam) in favor of so much talk is puzzling, yet Jackson's inclusion is justifiable in the most aesthetic sense--like the other preachers on the album, his phlegmatic oration has a truly musical/rhythmic base; he may not be a gospel singer, but he's sure our first gospel presidential candidate.

Consisting mostly of traditional church standards, "One Lord" isn't as much of a giddy kick as Aretha's last gospel album, 1972's classic "Amazing Grace," but its highlights are of a different sort.

The LP filled with especially rousing duets--like a slowed-down rendition of Edwin Hawkins' "Oh Happy Day," with Mavis Staples' marvelous contralto providing the "Sho' 'nuff" to Aretha's "Good God" on the loopy, reworked chorus; a speech by the Rev. Jaspar Williams that evolves into a duet as Franklin echoes his spoken words in song; and two pairings with Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, to add some much-needed energy at the finish.

It's not a "contemporary" gospel album--which is good if you've disliked the slickness of Aretha's recent pop hits, or maybe not so good if you're of a mind that she could be treating gospel with more modernity and less as an heirloom. This is, for better or worse, basically still a Sunday-go-to-meetin' album. If Aretha ever decides to make a record that attempts to reconcile Saturday night with Sunday morning, that could be really inspiring. But as documentaries go, who can turn down such a holy and wholly prime soul ticket?

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