Monday, November 26, 2007

Aretha Franklin - Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen (Arista 2007)

Aretha. Duets. Post-1980. Predictably mixed bag. But you already knew that much, didn't you?

Two new duets, with Fantasia and John Legend. Perfectly matched. 'Tasia and the Queen riff on the older-gives-advice-to-younger trope, to superb effect: the Underdogs (lots of contempo R&B, but more importantly for these purposes the Dreamgirls soundtrack) have the deftest, lightest touch behind the boards, the young'un's not cowed an iota in the presence of such a - THE - legend, and the song's a gem too. Light'n'lovely'n'one o' my favorites of '07. Legend, meanwhile, finally cuts out the drippy balladry for 4 minutes and actually gets his fuckin' JB on, all guttural funky-like. Sure, it's synth percussion, but it's synth percussion that knows from its "Mother Popcorn." It's called "What Y'All Came to Do," and it should be.

"Jumpin' Jack Flash" ain't a duet; Soto's pointed out that Ronnie Wood's more visible on it than producer Keef. But it's entertaining-enough junk nonetheless. "Nessun Dorma" isn't a duet, either - performing with the New York Performing Orchestra at the Grammys doesn't make it a collab. I'm in the minority of those who actually like 'Re's take on opera, what can I say? Pipes pipes pipes! "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" may spotlight Lennox, but owes more to Stewart. "I Knew You Were Waiting" shows up in a weaker, possibly Euro, mix, but nothing can defeat it; this is one of Narada Michael Walden's career peaks (Diane Warren's, too - she co-wrote) (hell, George Michael's, for that matter). Luther's "Doctor's Orders" (a full decade after he produced some of her best sides of the past 30 years) is a throwaway, and the Bobby-featured MJB duet, "Never Gonna Break My Faith," is well-intentioned creamed corn. But the other MJB feature, "Don't Waste Your Time" (from the highly underrated Mary) is a sublime soul summit (I know how that sounds, but really, it IS - this shit smolders).

What else is there? A pair from a VH-1 Divas Live concert (pleasant enough but utterly inessential); Sinatra sounding old while the Queen shows off her jazzy chops; great turns from Elton (surprisingly good at ceding the spotlight), Michael McDonald, and George Benson; and the glorious mess that is "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be," wherein you get to hear Aretha sing over faux-New Jack Swing and engage in vocal catfighting with La Whitney while Narada referees.

You don't necessarily need this, but should probably want it - for its good and its weird. I've got a feeling that I'll probably pull this off the shelf more than a little. B+

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