Daydreamin’ and I’m thinkin’ of you
Daydreamin’ and I’m thinkin’ of you
In sports parlance this one’s a bit of an away fixture for me, Aretha Franklin Young, Gifted & Black which I picked up four years ago because a) I wanted to give it a go b) Dr John appears on one track c) it was on Atlantic Records d) anything produced in 1972 is inherently brilliant; oh and it was reasonably priced, almost forgot that one.
Now soul is something I’ve had to educate myself in from a bit of a standing start since my parents had no interest in it, put off I suspect (like I was) by all the schmaltz and over-singing that gets peddled in its’ name. I own a bit of Otis Redding and a little Al Green, however my taste in soul tends to err towards The Temptations* and the mighty leather-trousered 9′ tall priapic colossus that was Isaac Hayes at his best. So this album was new territory for me, okay so I knew some of the classic Aretha cuts, I knew the big voice and that she was the queen of soul, but that was that.
It’s an interesting album, in some ways I’d compare it with an LP by an ace fret-bending axe hero; okay let this be the world premiere of the Aretha Franklin and Yngwie J. Malmsteen comparison**. A good few of the songs here just seem to be built as excuses to let that voice rip big, much in the same way that bands set up by Swedish axe shredders tend to have lots of songs that are, basically just a big fat excuse for a guitar solo. See the comparison works! I expect it to become industry standard within months. To my mind, in both camps those are the least effective songs by far – virtuosity is one thing, a good tune not being drowned out another thing entirely. Okay, before I have to leave for a safe house, let’s talk some music.
Check out and see what I mean on the opener, ‘Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool For You Baby)’, it’s a great big gilded slab of lushly orchestrated soul, building to a big vocal, plateau, just before the end. It’s fine, wonderfully played and crafted but leaves me fairly unmoved. Ditto the track ‘All the King’s Horses’, which has been carefully designed to ramp that voice up through its paces as calculatedly as any metaller gearing up for a big rip-roaring guitar solo. There are a few others that miss the boat for me too, the cover/complete re-interpretation of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ by some obscure band from northern England is one of those, I’m all for changing stuff but I just don’t think the end product here is overly special.
But on those tracks on Young, Gifted & Black where the song is the thing, that’s where the LP really takes off and becomes something quite special indeed. There is a great track here called ‘Day Dreaming’ credited to Aretha herself, which could have been straight off the Bacharach/David production line of light, umm, dreamy love pop, with a psychedelic jazzy tinge. Not a track I’d heard of before at all, which seems a little unfair as it is a real cracker – although this is more a reflection on me as I understand it was a really big single. Next up is ‘Rock Steady’ which is Aretha-goes-funk and it is just so brilliant, Dr John plays percussion and the Memphis Horns are added to jaw-dropping effect. This is just straight-up wonderful, whichever way you slice it – a great loping raunchy bass line and that voice taking the, pretty banal, lyrics somewhere else entirely. Once is never enough with this track, I tend to have to cue it up several times over.
On a similar tip I am also a big fan of the gospel funk-like take on Nina Simone’s ‘Young, Gifted & Black’, but there again I love the original too and its wonderfully uplifting message. I also love the understated ‘First Snow in Kokomo’ too, with its decidedly left field lyrics and gentle piano and guitar, it always intrigues me this song and there are no vocal pyrotechnics to distract from the melody. Interestingly enough my remaining highlight is ‘Border Song (Holy Moses)’, a cover of a song that my scribbled notes, interestingly tell me was originally by ‘Elrond John’^. Now I’m really not much of a fan, give or take a moment or two, but this is such a piquant song about homesickness, longing and, possibly, bigotry too, wrapped up in a perfectly judged delivery, it’s absolutely sublime and gives Young, Gifted & Black a real emotional finish
When you see the various production credits of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin you just know how perfectly well-recorded this LP is. I’m sure if I knew my soul players better than I did then I’d be in a position to enthuse over them more too, but my ignorance denies me that opportunity I’m afraid. Needless to say whether I particularly like the tracks here, or not, it is all played beautifully and sounds amazing, full and clear without any single element being stifled or submerged in the mix.
So this was an interesting experiment for me and there are enough intriguing and genius moments here to make me want to do it again sometime. How about you Yngwie?
P.S – when researching bits of this post I stumbled across a quite fascinating blog called AllAretha – just as it says it is an incredibly detailed index of all things Aretha. Want to see 70’s footage of Aretha performing ‘Rock Steady’, or an Argentinian picture sleeve 7″ of ‘Day Dreaming’ then it is all here. I really admire people who can put this much effort and dedication into one artist. I’d really recommend this site.
*or are they more Motown? this is complicated – I mean I can accurately identify NU-skate-core, from Skate-glam-emo-core, but I have no real markers for this stuff.
**this is, like, a historical event and stuff. Aretha J. Malmsteen, Yngwie J. Franklin? It Lives!! It Lives!! They called me mad, but I knew I could do it!! Mwah-ha-ha-ha etc.
^a lesser blogger than I would make a joke about him being the keeper of the last homosexual house, but I’m far above that.