Iconic singer, soul legend and Detroit’s diamond in the rough Aretha Franklin has released a new cover album taking on some of music’s best known and loved female artists. Bursting onto the airwaves with main single Rolling in the Deep, a cover of Adele’s smash hit, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics showcases Aretha’s ability to make just about any song her own. Reuniting with Sony Music’s Chief Creative Officer Clive Davis, the pair have co-produced an album that has more collaborative input than any other artist of late could shake a hairy stick at. Guest producers include Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Terry Hunter and Outkast’s Andre 3000 to name but a few and Franklin covers everyone from Etta James, Gladys Knight and Gloria Gaynor to Barbra Streisand and Sinead O’Conner.
When someone mentions a cover album, the general reaction is a shudder of contempt and confusion as to why the people covering can’t just make their own music, but when someone mentions Aretha Franklin covering some truly classic tunes from over the years, well, now you’re talking. Aretha doesn’t disappoint either. At 72 years of age, one of the original diva’s herself, Franklin belts out hit after hit in a style that only she could pull off, paying respect to each female artist’s most cherished interpretations.
Opening with the classic Etta James hit At Last, listeners are gently eased into the album with soft strings and a laid back feel giving us the impression that this is just a warm up for what’s to come. It’s followed closely by Adele’s commanding and powerful Rolling in the Deep which as we know is masterfully mashed with the classic Motown hit Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. The disco jazz grooves of I Will Survive and I’m Every Woman are also mash ups with Destiny’s Child’s Survivor and Aretha’s own Respect.
People is a stand out track. Occurring halfway through the album, the singer really comes into her element here with a song so full of emotion it reminds us of why she is rightly known as the Queen of Soul. Also jumping out is Nothing Compares To You, now an upbeat jazz number that breathes life into the Sinead O’Conner ballad most listeners associate it with. It comes complete with a bouncy piano accompaniment, interesting trumpet solos and a vocal delivery akin to the late great Ella Fitzgerald. The reggae makeover given to Alecia Keys’ No One is a refreshing take on the much overplayed radio favourite which sees Aretha living up to her reputation for never singing the same thing twice as she mesmerises us melismatically in her vocal delivery.
Unfortunately, there is a giant elephant in the room that does need to be addressed, and it’s name, is Auto tune. We first heard it on Rolling in the Deep where attempts weren’t even made to hide it’s presence and despite our strongest desires it rears it’s ugly head on several tracks throughout the album. It’s no secret that Aretha’s voice has waned over time, but come on, the woman has been singing for nearly 60 years and though she may struggle with some of the higher vocal ranges it’s fair to say her voice never truly lost its charm. It’s a shame that the natural talent of such a great artist has been overshadowed by a corrective computer and it does dampen the spirits of listeners who are informed enough to be able to recognise it, but at the end of the day, it’s still a great album and there are too many other positives to focus on.
In their defence, the most pleasing thing about this record is the fact that Aretha and Clive haven’t just created a collection of cover songs, but have also gone out of their way to reinterpret, reinvent and reignite each an every track with an array of interesting techniques. Points are given for their effort and experimentation and ability to bring classic tunes into a more modern arena, but they are also taken away for their lack of subtlety in employing modern tools most notably, the dreaded Auto Tune. All in all though, it’s a great listen and will undoubtedly leave you wanting more.