Aretha Franklin’s Let Me in Your Life is one of the few recent R&B albums that places the emphasis entirely and deservedly on a voice.
Many R&B producers have been making records on which the singer is outshined by the song, the arrangement and the sound. Treating the vocal as just another band on a 16-track tape, they sometimes prefer unobtrusive singing that highlights their production effects rather than strong personal singing that might deflect attention from it.
Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler believes first-rate records are made by first-rate voices. He certainly has worked with enough of them: Clyde McPhatter, Joe Turner, La Vern Baker, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. Selecting the setting that brings out their best, he never overwhelms their personalities with studio techniques.
But a preoccupation with singing can create other problems. While Atlantic has always found good studio bands to enhance the vocal work, it has never developed the staff writers, the variety of arrangers or the innovative recording styles that have added so much to contemporary black music. In these areas, Atlantic has too willingly relied on the conventional. And a record too dependent on the singer’s virtuosity can be just as confining as one that makes insufficient use of it.
Aretha Franklin has had a checkered career at the label, sounding best when she has had the most to personally contribute, without becoming too self-conscious and routine when uninterested. Her recent collaboration with Quincy Jones, Hey Now Hey, was destroyed by his use of ostentatious arrangements and irrelevant stylization, and her artiness. Jones didn’t understand that Franklin’s unfettered voice was the source of her recording greatness. The production team of Arif Mardin, Tom Dowd and Wexler do, and, reunited with Franklin, they have produced a fine, fine album.
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Let Me in Your Life establishes that if Aretha Franklin isn’t quite the rock singer she once was, she’s a better ballad singer than she ever has been.
The superiority of her ballad performances results partly from her own mellowing and partly from an awareness of the growing popularity of MOR with black audiences. The album is produced with the last fact firmly in mind. Mardin, who arranged most of the cuts, has loaded them down with plenty of strings. The results are halfway between R&B and MOR. None of the charts are outstanding, a few are drab and sluggish (made worse by the use of such gratuitous touches as pizzicato), but all are powerful enough to provide the necessary counterpoint to Franklin’s massive voice.
The rhythm section plays with expected verve and energy, but the horns, as well as the strings, lack the wholeness and sense of purpose so apparent on the best Motown or Philadelphia records. However, they don’t get in the way, and as long as they remain unobtrusive, it may be for the best. Unfortunately, the background voices are unfashionably low-pitched, lack the tautness of other black records and are sometimes distractingly ineffective.
But again, it is part of Franklin’s uniqueness that such criticisms often pale into insignificance when measured against the impact of her singing. The album’s single most awe-inspiring moment comes during the amazing vocal jumps at the end of one of her two slow compositions, “Oh Baby.” “If You Don’t Think,” her other similar original, is nearly as good, flowing with a sensual sway. As for her other superb ballad renditions, she sings Bobby Goldsboro’s “With Pen in Hand” (proving once again that it’s the singer not the song) and Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” with startling intimacy, although the latter suffers from a misplaced uptempo fade-out. But she even compensates for that with some excellent piano playing.
Franklin has always made reinterpretations of mainstream rock an essential ingredient in her repertoire — at least in part for want of a constant source of good new songs. On the just mentioned cuts, it makes no difference — by the time she finishes “With Pen in Hand,” it’s a new experience, let alone a new song. But her attempts to similarly revitalize “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “I’m in Love” seem labored by contrast. The former is misconceived (done too slowly), while the latter lacks the conviction so evident on her own material. Still, it has spirit and the voice holds me once again.
I enjoy straight MOR more than most rock people, but “The Masquerade Is Over” is only acceptable because the singing is so magnetically compelling. Stevie Wonder’s “Until You Come Back to Me” works much better and is typical of the album’s style — a fine song, done with a subtle mixture of drive and mellowness, graceful at the center but a bit rough around the edges (those background voices, again), a bit unwieldy but finally not merely ingratiating but exciting.
That style is defined by its absence on the album’s two self-consciously rocking cuts, “Every Natural Thing” and “Eight Days on the Road.” The former comes close to capturing her “Spirit in the Dark”-like fervor, although she strains for effect. The latter is simply drab and may reflect a disinterest in the material. While superior to the rocking efforts of most other R&B singers, it lacks some of the essential spark of older records and offers no new compensations.
Some albums are unified by a writer’s concept, others through a producer’s style or vision, but a producer’s style or vision, but Aretha Franklin’s through her voice, Beside it, the criticisms seem like carping, for she transcends the shortcomings of her musical setting to provide content through her musical personality — that unique combination of technical virtuosity and warmth, that ability to render even the biggest moments intimate, that very special innocence.
In R&B music today it takes nerve to present a singer so openly — undominated by production. Let Me in Your Life is too dependent on Franklin’s singing but I’m glad that Wexler and Mardin had the courage to err on the side of her voice rather than on the side of studio remote control. Like many great artists, Aretha Franklin is best appreciated whole, unprettified by the airbrushes of the studio. The proof is Let Me in Your Life itself — an album that justifies its existence by simply letting us listen once again to her voice.