december 2011

Aretha Franklin: delivering a seasonal keeper, by the sheer force of her unassailable artistry and bountiful spirit

Making Believers Of Us All

The Yule Aretha is something else again

By David McGee

Aretha Franklin
Sony Music Special Products
Released: 2006

If ever a Christmas album arrived on the market with a deafening thud it was Aretha Franklin's 2009 This Christmas, Aretha. Recorded for the DMI label, upon release the CD was not even stocked by, and customers delighted in penning poisonous appraisals. Almost all of those reviews complained of Aretha sounding more like Prince than the Queen of Soul. Alas, they were right, and we are left to wonder why one of the greatest singers of our time would take any kind of vocal cue from one of the day's most graceless and mannered vocalists.

From Joy To The World, Aretha’s take on the Mel Tormé-Robert Wells standard, ‘The Christmas Song’

But that's a subject best left for another time, because there is a more-than-viable holiday alternative for Aretha fans in Joy To the World, a mere 10 songs culled from Aretha's Columbia and Arista catalogues, the former of which has been almost universally condemned by critics for the label's (read: John Hammond's) insistence on trying to market her as a pop singer. Along comes Jerry Wexler, signs her to Atlantic and, as he said, "put her in the church." We know the rest of the story, from "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" to her present regal standing. The church figures in this disc, too, enough to make it memorable, and way better than the more recent album.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Winter Wonderland,’ from Joy To The World

It kicks off with two bonafide gospel house wreckers: a furious, choir-enhanced workout on "Joy To the World," recasting the song with many hands clapping exuberantly, tambourines shaking, a pumping organ, booming percussion, a wailing guitar, and Aretha ascendant, wailing, shouting and declaiming fervently above the choir until they all come together at the end in an explosive crescendo. From her 1987 One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism album (which may be the source for "Joy To the World," too, although it's not on that album and this disc has no liner info to indicate from whence its material is drawn) comes a fiery live version of Edwin Hawkins's "Oh Happy Day." Now, this is not specifically a Christmas song, but when you get Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples harmonizing, growling and getting into some righteous call-and-response gospel shouting, as the choir erupts behind them, well, you are really into a transcendent scene. These two soul legends reinvent the song, grinding out the original lyrics and improvising new ones as they deepen the groove and build the tension with scat-style repartee until both explode in guttural shouts to the heavens. That same album is the source of two more powerful gospel performances, both of which achieve a humbling, soul shaking power through the strength of Aretha's testifying alone. On "The Lord's Prayer" and "Ave Maria" she's accompanied only by a piano, and occasionally a choir, but the focus is sharply on her voice and her emotional performances--she gets so deep into "Ave Maria," probing the lyrics by stretching out phrases, twisting them into different shapes, finding shadows in the most innocuous phrases, as to remake the song into a journey commencing at a cautionary distance from the glory land but ending in a breathless celebration wrapped in God's embrace--indeed, at the close of this near-seven-minute exploration, Aretha sounds wrung out, emotionally drained, unable to summon any more words of devotion, and prostrate at Heaven's gate.

Aretha Franklin, ‘Kissin’ By the Mistletoe,’ from Joy To The World

In between the live cuts are pop-oriented tunes with a blues tinge, featuring a plaintive-voiced Aretha offering heartfelt readings of "Over the Rainbow," "Winter Wonderland," "The Christmas Song," "Kissin' By the Mistletoe" (it's fun to hear her sing this frisky tidbit, sounding lighthearted and flirty, her voice surrounded not only by strings but also by a swinging horn section and lively pop background singers) and, inexplicably, "God Bless the Child" and a jazzy "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," from Johnny Mercer. A small ensemble and strings accompanies her, the arrangements are lovely, and she gets downright torchy on "Over the Rainbow" and "The Christmas Song." You don't even have to listen attentively to hear the Billie Holiday affectations in her voice at times, but you can also hear, in these early tracks, the singular phrasing and sense of a lyric's full dimension and meaning that flowered sporadically at Columbia and dramatically when she was let loose at Atlantic, as the live cuts illustrate most dramatically. No matter the setting, she's never far from the gospel highway--the church infuses everything she does here. So mark this one a seasonal keeper, by the sheer force of Aretha's unassailable artistry and bountiful spirit. She'll make a believer of you, in many ways.

Aretha Franklin’s Joy To The World is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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