Aretha Franklin Aretha's Best
Various Artists Girl Group Greats
These Rhino retrospectives, single discs both, make for splendid thematic bookends to an era: Aretha, not only the Queen of Soul but a voice of feminism during her ascendancy in the mid-to-late '60s; girl-group pop — cute, catchy and representative of an age when a young lady's main purpose in life was to land a fella and be his doormat in the process. Aretha, one of the most powerfully original artists in the history of recorded music; girl-group pop, a phenomenon driven largely by producers and songwriters, with artists who were often all but faceless and possessed lesser vocal talent.
Despite the apparent inequity of importance between these two collections, many of the songs on Girl Group Greats stand toe-to-toe with Aretha's as indispensable treasures. Very few tunes match the sheer exuberance of Martha & the Vandellas' Heat Wave, which kicks off Greats. Martha Reeves peppers the coda with a series of raspy yeah-yeahs that raise the song to fever pitch. Heat Wave was a smash for Motown in 1963. In fact, the girl group phenomenon flourished in the early '60s and all but petered out with the advent of Beatlemania.
The 20 selections on Greats are nearly all delightful — and most were big hits. Nine tracks pulled off the impressive feat of being No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts. They range from the wide-eyed bubblegum of Lesley Gore's It's My Party (and I'll cry if I want to) to the grittier rhythm & blues of Please Mr. Postman, as well as sublime crossover numbers like The Chiffons' He's So Fine and the Dixie Cups' Chapel of Love.
While most of the songs here represent some measure of female submissiveness, Joannie Sommers' treacly Johnny Get Angry is the biggest groaner: Johnny get angry/ Johnny get mad/ Give me the biggest lecture I've ever had/ I want a brave man/ I want a cave man/ Johnny show me that you care, really care, for me — broken up by (believe it) a gazoo solo. Fortunately, the song is immediately followed by one of the set's true gems: The Toys' A Lover's Concerto, built on the melody of Bach's Minuet in G.
Girl Group Greats is an altogether charming CD, its songs evocative of a particular period in time — that last gasp of innocence before the '60s gave way to tumult.
Aretha, on the other hand, is timeless. She may not have been consorting with the likes of Steinem and Friedan, but such songs as Respect and Think, which kick off Aretha's Best, speak with a take-no-shit eloquence that equals any feminist tome.
There have been several Aretha Best-of albums over the years, but this one does the best job of collecting the hits over the expanse of her career. That's probably why 1985's Freeway of Love has been installed as the third track — to remind listeners that the Queen was not just a '60s phenomenon. All told, though, her work from 1967 to '73 — Baby, I Love You, A Natural Woman, Chain of Fools, Rock Steady, Do Right Woman — Do Right Man and others — trumps '80s fare like Jump to It, Who's Zoomin' Who and the disc's only dog: her duet with George Michael, I Knew Your Were Waiting (For Me). Interestingly, Aretha's Best contains not a single song from the 1974-81 years. Although she scored a few middling hits, Aretha was largely put asunder by the disco era.
Neither of these collections is designed to bowl you over with rarities or revelations
They stick to the tried-and-true — but how can you argue with CDs that simply flow from one great hit song to the next? (Rhino) —Eric Snider
Saves the Day Stay What You Are
For its third full-length, the super-hyped New Jersey emo outfit Saves The Day jettisons most of its hardcore influences to offer a somewhat pedestrian collection of angst-laden guitar-pop tunes. And therein lies the problem with Stay What You Are — it seems like an attempt to encapsulate the genre's catchier elements, and in doing so comes off as generic, notable only for being conspicuously emotionally overwrought. Much of the band's trademark manic energy seems to have softened along with the guitar tones; only the opening At Your Funeral, See You, and closer Firefly approach their former enthusiasm. Certain Tragedy and Freakish call to mind a less-daring Weezer, while the bouncy Cars & Calories belies a latent Elvis Costello influence. But those tracks suffer from the sameness that permeates the disc, a by-the-numbers vibe redeemed solely by singer Chris Conley's vocals, which, given his tear-jerking delivery and obtuse lyrical bent, may not be a good thing. Only the crashing Nightingale and hooky All I'm Losing is Me really stand out. (Vagrant, www.vagrant.com)
The Blind Boys of Alabama Spirit of the Century
Talk about yer soul music. The Blind Boys of Alabama — who formed their gospel group in 1939 at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind — unleash their 22nd album since their recording debut in 1948. For their first Realworld outing, the Blind Boys brought in ace roots producer John Chelew, who in turn recruited such luminaries as slide guitarist David Lindley, guitarist/dobro player John Hammond, harmonica man Charlie Musselwhite and others. The result is an exalted collection of music best described as swamp-gospel — full of slurry guitars, gutbucket rhythms and lots of gruff, testifyin' vocals from some true veterans of the idiom. (Of the four Blind Boys, founder Clarence Fountain and George Scott are original members.) Along with a series of traditionals (including Amazing Grace sung to the creeping melody of House of the Rising Sun), the fellows perform two songs by Tom Waits (Jesus Gonna Be Here, Way Down in the Hole), as well as Ben Harper's Give a Man a Home and Jagger/Richards' Just Wanna See His Face. Spirit of the Century has some real contemporary cred, as well as secular appeal. But you may see God too. (Realworld)