ME SO DUMB: when I saw this listed, I jumped at the chance to review it, thinking that it was a compilation of duets between two of the greatest soul singers that ever lived.
I don’t know what planet I was on that morning. Clearly, Redding and Franklin could never have recorded an album’s worth of duets, because poor Otis was dead and gone by the end of 1967, and Urethra (as my gay friends at school called her) didn’t hit her stride until 1968.
So, what do we have here? It’s simply a double CD, one of which is a 23-track Aretha Franklin ‘best of’, the other of which is a 27-track Otis Redding ‘best of’.
In theory, slinging two such great soul singers together makes a lot of sense; the reality is somewhat flawed.
Redding was at an unassailable peak when that plane went down, creating a legend and forever preventing him from embarrassing himself further down the line by embarking on duets with Mariah Carey or doing half-assed ‘80s synth-pop projects.
While a lot of the songs here are covers of well-worn songs (‘My Girl’, ‘Satisfaction’), he puts his inimitable big-lipped wet-kiss of a voice on every one of them. It’s an unlovely instrument on the face of it, but there’s a warmth and an unforced emotive quality that’s always right there, in your face, along with terrific control and very tightly focused nuance of expression. There’s no getting around the fact, though, that had he lived five or six more years he would probably have made music that put just about everything here in the shade. Everything, that is, except for ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ and ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, two songs that could wrench your heart out of your chest cavity, such is the sheer emotive impact.
While Redding’s small discography will always remain without serious blemish, the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, was able to commit heinous sins later in her career. It almost seemed as though each time she put on a few more pounds, her musical indiscretions had to get loaded with more saccharine sounds. They save the worst for last, so at least the careful listener can choose to omit her odious 1986 duet with George Michael, ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’.
Whoever compiled this ‘best of’ had our best interests at heart, however, because her best years (1967 through the mid-‘70s) are well represented, and the ‘80s and onwards are blessedly present in only a few small doses.
But I admit that I do have something of a problem with Aretha Franklin. There’s no doubt that she has one hell of a big, strong gospel hollerin’ voice, and respect to that. (Speaking of her calling card, ‘Respect’, perhaps the ‘together’ concept of this double CD came from the fact that Redding contributes his own version of this song also). I just don’t like it that much. One or two songs are great, but anything more and I need to leave the room: even when she sings a song demanding of sensitivity, like ‘(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman’, there simply is none. Her voice is always the same, never pretty or pensive. Even Janis Joplin’s shriek is a good deal more tolerable to these old ears.
That’s just me. She is the queen of soul, after all, and there’s a wealth of good stuff here, great performances all, in there own way. Audiences who have grown up in an era where pop singers have songs written for them, or write their own, may find it hard to comprehend that many of the songs are covers. They may wonder why she bothers with ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ or ‘Let It Be’ or ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. She does, however, wrap her tonsils around these tunes with authority, and give them her own soul twist.
So, then, two pretty damn fine selections by two of the best soul singers, on two CDs that you buy together. Well, that’s still weird to me. Why would you have to have them Siamese twinned? I guess it comes down to whether the consumer wants a dose of both at the same time, and whether the price appeals.
One thing I was astonished by was the sound quality. I’ve become accustomed to ‘60s soul sounding piercingly thin on a decent hi-fi set-up and tend to avoid listening to it as a result on anything less than a crappy iPod dock. But the production values and mastering here are superb. While the recording quality obviously varies from track to track, and Franklin’s disc sounds a bit better because most of the tracks were recorded a bit later, it’s fair to say that in both cases the voices come at you with all the force and richness they did the first time round, while the instruments have the kind of transparency and separation in the mix that only the better studios could have allowed. They even have deep bass, and hallelujah to that! GARY STEEL
Sound = 4/5
Music = 3.5/5