Aretha Franklin: This Christmas Aretha

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Posted December 24, 2010 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

On first holiday pageant, the Queen of Soul tries to bring all the worlds together for a down-home soul food buffet

Call it some strange phenomenon that the Queen of Soul has never released a full-length holiday project in all of her four-decade career. Sure Aretha Franklin has recorded a number of Christmas songs along the way; most importantly her now-classic holiday single “Winter Wonderland” released during her short tenure with Columbia before she emerged into her soulful element on Atlantic in 1967. And please don’t bother with the special products’ assembly of 2006’s Joy to the World which combines a few carols from her Columbia days, gospel songs from her One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism and a bundle of oddly selected choices. This Christmas Aretha serves as Aretha Franklin’svery first holiday collection – recorded way beyond her prime and years away from her associations with industry greats Clive Davis and Jerry Wexler. The eleven-track exclusive, released through retail bookstore Borders and DMI Records, mostly features R&B-tinged arrangements of holiday favorites along with Franklin’s interests in down home gospel. Though Franklin and label owner Tena Clark produce the project on their own, their wise decisions to bring in heavyweight musicians and visionaries into the fold makes the album a glistening occasion. Renowned producer Michael J. Powell even serves on a few of the tracks as an engineer consultant; guiding Franklin through a rich sonic display of colorful instrumentation. Add James “Big Jim” Wright, Paul Jackson, Jr., Nathan East and an impeccable set of background singers (including former Luther Vandross’ personnel Fonzi Thornton, Lisa Rischer and Brenda White-King) and you have a collection that is bound to cause a R&B fanatic to blush with pride.

Of the album’s eleven studio tracks, “Silent Night” stands out as one of the album’s defining moments for its peaceful arrangement and Franklin’s careful executions. She doesn’t burst into a seaful of melismas also and that’s a good thing on this timeless ballad. “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” with its gospel arrangement, and the O’Jays’ gem “Christmas Ain’t Christmas (Without the One You Love)” are also warm delights to the collection. Franklin even delivers a spine-tingling occasion captured with her big falsetto high notes and soulful vocal effects on David Foster’s beautifully-penned “My Grown-Up Christmas List.” The song was originally recorded by Natalie Cole in 1990 for Foster’s River of Life non-holiday album, but Franklin’s take is quite different with its polished pop layout and Franklin’s unapologetic gospel outbreaks. Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” has a few memorable and funny moments; injected with an opening monologue featuring the Queen picking up her cell phone and bursting with a romantic “Hey, sweetenin’” and later ends the conversation with “My food is burning, I’ll call you back.” She then sings a duet with son Edward Franklin who later upstages his mother with an explosive high note, held for a period of time and finally whirls into a startling “ooooh” closing that easily resembles James Ingram’s.

Not one to refrain from reaching back to her gospel roots, Franklin walks through two gospel songs that bears no connection to the holiday message at all, but the heart of gospel remains as close to the Queen’s repertoire as the eternal soul of Otis Redding’s“Respect.” A rendition of Al Green’s version of Thomas Dorsey’s “The Lord Will Make a Way” makes way for down home Sunday morning church and punctuated with a looping, well-fitted vamp and Franklin’s pompous ad-libs. “One Night With the King,” taken from the soundtrack of TBN’s proud best-selling film, is not as grand. Not because the ballad’s drenched with more instrumentation than lyrics, but because Franklin’s notes aren’t as clear and precise with diction as her other selections. The song also goes well over its time limit; clocking over six minutes long. But both performances shows Franklin in territory that resembles more of her infamous Atlantic sides than most of the other offerings.

Some will get a kick out of her retelling of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” but don’t be surprised by the ghetto phrases and the bleeped-out explicit. The presence of this track could have been easily been omitted and thrown away into the sea of forgetfulness. Considering Franklin’s spiritual connections and her royal musical highness, it may have been best to have never dance around a brand of comedy that only works in movies like Soul Plane.

Most of the album will be welcomed by true Franklin fans and will mark another return to recording more religious material. Most of the nature of This Christmas Aretha falls into territories of carols and spirituals and barely a trace of jingle bells. While the album won’t become the classic album most hoped it would be, it is Aretha doing material that fits her style and caliber. Maybe with less melisma action, the album would have easily slipped into easy-listening mode and may have earned a few extra stars for holiday music lovers. But that wouldn’t be right, she’s the Queen of Soul for God’s sake. It just wouldn’t be an Aretha record without explosive, chilling belts, squalls and vocal aerobics.

J MATTHEW COBB

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HIFI DETAILS

  • Release Date: November 2008
  • Label: DMI
  • Producers: Tena Clark, Aretha Franklin
  • Track Favs: The Lord Will Make a Way, My Grown-Up Christmas List, Silent Night

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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