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Music Review: Aretha Franklin – Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen

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Big record labels have to mine their catalogs; these days it's the only way they can stay in business. With Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, there's plenty of material to draw from, and not just from decaying archives. But this collection of collaborations further demonstrates what we already knew: duets between stars are usually far less than the sum of their parts.

The good stuff on here includes a few well-known recordings, like the hit "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" with Annie Lennox, and some new numbers, like "What Y'All Came To Do," a repetitive but crisp dance number with John Legend in which the nu-soul crooner shows some uncharacteristic spunk, singing the chorus and bantering with Aretha. Backed up by Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan on "Natural Woman" and by Mariah Carey on "Chain of Fools," the legend sounds great, but how could anyone (especially Herself) screw up those classics?

Two duets with Mary J. Blige turn out well, especially the gospel track "Never Gonna Break My Faith." But a lot of the rest is just '80s (and 80s-style) hokum, bland songs with no purpose but for a singer to exercise his or her lungs. One could imagine Aretha teaming successfully with the likes of Elton John, Whitney Houston, Michael McDonald, Luther Vandross, and George Benson, but one will have to keep imagining. Without a halfway decent song to sing, what was the point of wasting the time of all those musicians and engineers (not to mention ours)?

Of note, but not in a good way, is the disappointing new duet with Fantasia, who can light up a stage on her own terms, but comes off as a lightweight trying to match vocals with the Queen of Soul. And the less said about the grafted-on duet with Frank Sinatra's recording of "What Now My Love," which was crappy in the first place, the better. Aretha sounds great on it, but it was very, very far from Ol' Blue Eyes's finest moment, and whoever decided to resurrect it for this purpose should be stripped of his or her license to practice A&R.

The disc ends with Aretha's famous rendition of "Nessum Dorma" from the 1998 Grammy Awards broadcast, when she stepped in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti at almost literally the last minute. Aretha sang the aria, in the tenor's key, with a 72-piece orchestra, and brought down the house. It was a truly magic moment in the history of music, one of many Aretha has given us – but given us, virtually always, entirely on the strength of her own matchless voice and peerless soul. This CD ain't gonna change that.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    It was a truly magic moment in the history of music,

    man, oh man…you got that right!!

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.

  • Marion Fleishman

    Don’t know Jon Sobel but after reading the comment re the Sinatra duet, I trust his every word! Of all the Sinatra’s to choose from she picks the worst? Still love her though and will buy on Tue.

  • http://www.yahoogroups.com/group/jeandushon Mack

    With so many talented people out there that will never be discovered to record, it’s a shame when people who DO get the opportunity, record the same junk that everybody else is putting out.

    American Idol winners are a case in point. Have you HEARD the crap their being TOLD to record? A great soul voice like Fantasia Barrino is recording the same, boring neo r & b as Brandy, Ashanti and the rest of the hip/hop crowd. What a waste.

    A star as legendary as Aretha Franklin — she has shocked and puzzeled me over the years with her duets. Here you had THE premiere singer (Aretha) and a premiere balladeer (Luther Vandross) and all they came up to record was the weak, “Dr. Orders,” an uptemp novelty tune. A pure waste of talent. Likewise, when Whitney Houston came into the studio to work with Aretha, they did some silly fluff about “It Wasn’t…It’s Never Gonna Be.” I was crushed.

    People IN the business seem to lose their way once they are there. I can only think of a handful of “perfect albums.” I wonder who sat down with Dakota Staton and said, “let’s record these songs for ‘The Late, Late Show”? Doris Day’s “Day By Day” is another perfect pop album.

    It seems that Aretha always has to throw in a clunker or two on otherwise great albums. Who said to her, “Nikki Hokey” would be perfect to put on LADY SOUL? Or, “Sister From Texas” on HEY NOW HEY? I recently purchased the new “Unreleased…” from the Atlantic vaults and instead of “Texas,” they could have included the wonderful “Tree of Life.”

    This DUETS cd by Aretha, I already have most of this stuff and what I don’t have, I don’t want. So, I won’t purchase it. Good luck, ‘yall!