The instrumental tracks Curtis Mayfield produces at his Curtom Studio in Chicago always sound a little contrived. There's a swirling harp every time you turn around, the syncopated horn figures lie just so against the bass and drums, and there is often a surfeit of trebly percussion instruments like bells, chimes and cymbals. But Mayfield understands the gospel roots of the most powerful black pop vocalists as well as, if not better than, any producer alive, and he's carried this understanding from his earliest sides with the Impressions right on up to his latest work with the Staple Singers and, now, Aretha Franklin. Mavis Staples and Aretha are probably the most distinctive singers in the field, and although Mayfield's work with them has suffered somewhat from sameness of material and of instrumental sound, he has understood their voices.
Sparkle, which consists of Mayfield's tunes from the motion picture of the same name and a few extra originals, could easily have been a cheap shot, a momentary deviation from the mainstream in Aretha Franklin's career. Instead, it is her most consistently exciting album in some time. It never quite scales the heights of the early Atlantic sides, which were recorded in the South and often sounded like off-the-cuff testifying from the back of the church. They weren't, of course. They were as carefully put together as any great pop records, but the seams didn't show. Sparkle is more obvious — one often feels a certain tension between the singer and the prerecorded tracks — but ultimately its manufactured sound isn't very important. Aretha may be singing with tracks which are slick and occasionally overproduced, but she is singing her heart out.
The most satisfying aspect of the spectacular vocal performances that dominate the album is Mayfield's channeling of their energy. Aretha has always sung with passion, but here, due no doubt to the producer's directions, the passion rises and falls along carefully plotted curves. When she ad-libs, which is often, the results don't just mark time between verses, they carry the song further along its developmental path. This may sound terribly calculated for an artist as emotive as Aretha, but the most successful pop producers have always known how to channel excitement. Energy that's let out at a performer's whim can dissipate into the air; energy that's shaped and guided has the power to move an audience like nothing else.
A track-by-track rundown of Sparkle's high points would be tiresome, but one Franklin/Mayfield collaboration, "Rock with Me," deserves special praise. It's a deliberately paced, walkingtempo tune that avoids most of Mayfield's songwriting and production clichés and steams along irresistibly, rising several times into the hottest hook Aretha has had to work with in some time. The rest of the album is only slightly less stirring; you can listen from beginning to end without coming upon any inappropriate filler material or lackluster vocal performances. Sparkle, even more than the Staples/Mayfield match on Let's Do It Again, deserves an encore.