Aretha Franklin, once the world's greatest living soul singer, has sold out. The erstwhile Queen of Soul, who had a string of big singles in the 1960s--"Spanish Harlem," "Respect," "Think," "House That Jack Built"--has returned to the music scene with a giant media splash. You know: the kind that goes "Pop, $$$$, thud."
Franklin is restaking her claim to No. 1 on a new LP called WHO'S ZOOMIN' WHO? (Arista). And don't doubt it: record company execs and the putative music industry will do their darnedest to pass this new album off as the reincarnation of Private Dancer, 1984's comeback miracle.
But the good news that Franklin is back quickly sours when you give this record a listen. It may be true that Franklin shares a few stripes with Tina Turner--both apparently are tough-minded, independent women who have taken their knocks. But musically they are miles apart. Where Franklin cruises the gospel-inflected domain of church R&B, Turner remains raunch'n roll's preeminent gasp-and-grinder. One sells her soul, the other her ass.
And here's another difference: Who's Zoomin' won't have the longstanding success Turner managed with her uneven, mostly convincing comeback record. Turner earned her place atop the music heap last year with a sincere testimonial to love-gone-bad. Franklin fires her bolts at the teeny-weenie crowd and the most that can be said for her is that she succeeds at infantilizing her once proud persona.
Her effort was jinxed at the outset because of her choice of Narada Michael Walden as producer. Walden (who worked with Jeff Beck and helped turn the legendary ax man on to the panacea of disco) here has so little faith in Franklin's raw talents that he keeps drowning her vocals in a sea of special effects. The tracks on Who's Zoomin' skitter back and forth between different styles, from pop to soulful sassiness to coolly hip. The emphasis is always on Walden's pyrotechnical studio tricks.
Variety can be a good thing, but unfortunately, on Who's Zoomin' it feels calculated. The opening cut, the bleach-brained "Freeway of Love," explores adolescent sexuality with all the subtlety of a rubber hygiene implement. And it hardly requires a degree from the Motor City School of Imagery to figure out what Franklin means when she refers to her "pink Cadillac": the phrase does for Springsteen's infamous auto what Sheena's "sugar walls" did for the dextrose concession.
Sadly, the song's Madonna-ish energy seems manufactured, as if someone tried to force Franklin's flowing figure into today's anorexic teenaged clothing. Aretha should have know better.
In contrast, "Sweet Bitter Love," which Franklin first recorded two decades ago for Columbia, features some pretty tasty stuff. The singing on this number is so emotional one wonders how Franklin could even finish the song. The same goes for "Integrity," which Franklin wrote and produced, and which has the immediacy and purposefulness of a real feminist anthem--"You think ladies are toys/I like the big boys/...With integrity."
Then the snags reemerge. The album's other attempt to corner the feminist market fares poorly. "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," sung with Annie Lennox, beats its anthemic theme over the head--"Now this is a song to celebrate/The conscious liberation of the female state...." Although Eurythmics' Dave Stewart gets in a few impressive licks, the tune buckles under the weight of its own significance.
Collaboration is the leitmotif--if there is any at all--on Who's Zoomin'. A bunch of Hot Stars get in on Aretha's Action as if they all wished to exploit (whoops, I mean insure) the Rebirth of a Legend. In addition to Lennox and Stewart, Peter Wolf chimes in for a phony duet (with an obvious nod to Mick and Tina) and Carlos Santana and Clarence Clemons drop by for a pair of specialty solos. It all adds up to what could have been but wasn't. Too bad Franklin doesn't have (just a little bit) of self r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
George Clinton's latest, entitled SOME OF MY BEST JOKES ARE FRIENDS, is also a bad record.
Make that real ba-aa-ad.
What must have started as an appeal to street-wise pacifists, SOMBJAF thrives as hipper-than-thou funkadelia and constitutes the wittiest attack on U.S. arms policy since Tom Lehrer. A solid achievement when you recall that, at high voltages, Clinton has been known to inflict minor seismic damage. An amazing achievement considering how top-heavy the record might have sounded due to its immense cast of extras--30 background singers, 10 keyboard players and an array of drum-related, beat-box soloists.
Somehow, Clinton blends it all into his beat to produce a record that not only "takes cover in the groove" (as he would have it) but even manages to "funk the bomb" (as the Village Voice proclaimed in a recent review). The salacious echo of "funking the bomb" is in your own mind: We're talking funk, sucker.
Clinton has always been an individual. In the 70's, he masterminded Black music prime movers--emphasis on movers--Parliament and Funkadelic. You would think everyone would be able to get into his thang. But complaints have been bruited that his sound is too obnoxiously the apotheosis of libido. This is false. Simply put, if the blow-it-out-yer-ass sentiment that fuelled his Atomic Dog hit of three years ago--"Bow wow wow yipee yow yipee yow"--didn't drive you from your seat and into a fury of rear-wagging, then you weren't listening to it loud enough. This isn't music to write poetry to.
Which is not to say it's short on poetry itself. Clinton has a sloganeer's knack for engineering mischievous, provocative lyrics. His songs intersperse sexual double entendres with street-talk to round out an informed polemic. The "message" of SOMBJAF--unlike that of Grandmaster Flash--transcends the ghetto cliches that make rap so egregious. We're talkin' the redefinition of urban sophistication.
"Double Oh-Oh," SOMBJAF's first and most danceable cut, starts Clinton's assault. A metallic beat carves its way through a dense vocal arrangement as singers trade licks on the subject of spies and sperms. By the end, there are two clear meanings to a wailing momma's screams: "Who. Is. For my coun-try? Who. Is. For me?" Love and patriotism, yoked together via the healing power of funk, have been bizarrely fused. At least, that's my guess.
On "Thrashin'," co-producer Thomas Dolby injects an effete strain by leading Clinton & Co. on a ride in a "space limousine." With lines like, "Thrashin', mashin'/Cashin' in on the groove. . . . /Take no prisoners/Show no mercy," Parliament's old leader and his Anglo sidekick make no bones about their beefs. As the title track says, our potential for good times is being suffocated within our materialist, conservative regime. Just "like we split a pair of genes/We split the whole world at the seams."
In his off-time, Dolby also has been producing a much-touted band from Scotland with the world's wimpiest name, Prefab Sprout. Contrary to popular belief, this group, headed by the brothers McAloon, did not pick up their moniker from a vegetarian dish at a SoHo restaurant--but they might as well have. Soft-pop is a term too readily used by critics: lately, it serves to describe everyone from Huey Lewis to X. Instead, let's call this musical melange soft-porn: it is that foul.
Once in a while a band comes along that is so mushy, so nebulous, so irrelevant that not even the slickest packaging by Dolby's studio team can reclaim it from the vinyl dust bin.
And so we hail Prefab Sprout's second album, STEVE McQUEEN. Imagine, if you dare, Aztec Camera with twice the accent plus lousier lyrics times silly Linda McCartney backround singing.
'Nuff said. * * *
Incidentally, Dolby and the Clinton crew combine on a 12-incher entitled MAY THE CUBE BE WITH YOU, from Dolby's upcoming Brit-funk LP. The song reminds us that Dolby's mindless career since "Blinded Me With Science" can still be salvaged. He just took the wrong road when it diverged in the ol' yellow wood.
But-seriously-folks, the best thing about The Cube is the company Dolby keeps, not his natty nuttiness. The funk on this song is slow and smooth, like honey over gravel, eased by Clinton sidemen Dennis Chambers and Rodney Curtis, spiced by the Brecker Brothers' smart horn playing, and sassy, improvised background vocals by Lene Lovitch and George Clinton.
This baby also cops this week's edition of line of the year: Dolby disingenuously vows, aping Clinton, to "drop some bombs on Maggie Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan." Uh, right, big fellah. When will he stop being such a rambling hyperactive guy?
I was really hoping to Squeeze in an upbeat spiel about this once-proud pop group's resurrection. No such luck. COSI FAN TUTTI FRUTTI has but one inspired moment--its clever corruption of the Mozart opera title (Omigod, I mentioned real music). The rest is much sound'n fury, a thickly overlaid and confusing pastiche of synthetic pop gimmicks. What's more, there are no hooks.
Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook join forces on the songwriting, as in days of yore. Although the group had waited until 1983 to break up, it effectively lost its bearings after Argybargy in 1980, when keyboard wizard Julien "Jools" Holland decided to pack it in.
Well, Holland's back. Paradoxically, his return is probably the major reason why this record goes nowhere. His omnipresent keyboards suffuse this album at virtually every turn. There's some pretty classy synthesizer--Moog organ, piano, etc.--but the cuts remain stale, hermetically sealed as "great concepts."
Perhaps the flaws on Cosi Fan Tutti stem from the fact that Squeeze put the LP together in the studio before trying their stuff out live. If the songs on this record had begun as live riffs, spontaneous bits of popish nonsense in the best Squeeze tradition, they might have gone somewhere. Rather, the Fab-Four-that-almost-was (they're actually five now) worked very hard on pulling off a masterpiece in the sterile confines of an airless studio. The result doesn't snap, it rarely crackles, and it never pops.