Rhapsody Streamnotes: June 12, 2012

Not much to intro here. Haul looked skimpy until the turn of the month, when I finally buckled down on the downloads -- Action Bronson is still in the queue. And I picked up four of the five records I mentioned as missing last time -- Father John Misty remains beyond my purview. Still working haphazardly, but mostly off my metacritic file, which is mostly green down to 50, mixed to 100, then more black (with occasional blue) after that. The blue, of course, is mostly jazz, which starts to pick up around 267 with Steve Lehman (still my record of the year). However, no jazz below (unless you count BBNG). Doesn't mean a thing. Just broke that way.

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on May 15. Past reviews and more information are available here.

Ab-Soul: Control System (2012, !K7): Black Hippy crew (Lamar Kendrick, Schoolboy Q) solo, has sharp beats, like the overall sound, less sure about his quick rhymes (for one thing, his tendency to accentuate every other line with "nigger"), could be smart but can also get stupid, and runs on for 71:43 -- an awful lot to bother sorting out for someone who doesn't give you much reason to care. B [Later: B+(**)]

BadBadNotGood: BBNG2 (2012, self-released): Or BBNG for short. Piano trio from Canada, possibly Ottawa -- Matthew Tavares, Chester Hansen, Alexander Sowinski -- go electric sometimes and try to pass themselves off as hip-hop even though the instrumentation is jazz. Two cuts with Leland Whitty on sax enter into some dense, almost industrial wailing. Same with guitarist Luan Phung's one cut. More postrock than fusion, more interesting with the extra noise. B+(*) [bc]

The Beach Boys: That's Why God Made the Radio (2012, Capitol): Reunited -- minus Dennis and Carl, but that leaves Brian, Al, Mike, second-stringer Bruce Johnston, and masses of studio help -- to cash in on their 50th anniversary, presenting their first album since 1996 (or 1992), but Brian (who's really all that matters) has worked erratically since then. Aside from the song Mike Love wrote for his unreleased 1978 solo joint -- First Love; he's as good with unreleased album titles (others include Unleash the Love and Mike Love Not War) as he is bad at songwriting -- this is all Brian, imitating Brian, which he's not only good at but is becoming ever funnier over time. Inspired lyric: "spring vacation/good vibration/summer weather/we're back together." B+(**)

Beach House: Bloom (2012, Sub Pop): Dream pop duo, previous (third) album was a year-end contender, as this one may well be. It certainly qualifies as lush and vibrant, the balmy waves of sound washing over you warm and numbing -- a pleasure at first, but eventually the sensual monotony sets in, takes over, and reduces this to tedium. So convincing I almost expect to wake up with a sunburn. B

Willis Earl Beal: Acousmatic Sorcery (2011 [2012], XL): Chicago singer-songwriter, has a primitivist vibe, sounds like he built all his instruments, starting with an instrumental on what sounds like a variant of thumb piano. Discomforting at first, but he's so direct he breaks through and make an impression. I've seen him compared to Daniel Johnston, which isn't fair. But he's not quite Swamp Dogg either. He's different. (Bonus track, for real: "Masquerade.") B+(*)

Best Coast: The Only Place (2012, Mexican Summer): Bethany Cosentino's vehicle -- she has a partner, but that doesn't much enter into the songwriting -- back with an album that sounds like a prequel to her Crazy for You breakthrough: less jangle, more angst. Lets the simple songs come through more clearly, like "How They Want Me to Be" -- would be an anthem, but the best she can do is define herself negatively. B+(**)

Big Baby Gandhi: Big Fucking Baby (2011, mixtape): Only bio I can find describes him as a Bangladeshi-American based in Queens, a fellow traveller of the guys in Das Racist. This is pretty elemental, not quite dumb but intending to pass, yet he managed to keep a smile on my face from beginning to end, even on the one that insists it's worth a blunt, not just a jay. A- [dl]

Big Baby Gandhi: No 1 2 Look Up 2 (2012, mixtape): Draws more instrumental chutney from his south Asian background, a mix of sweet and sour and hot I often find a bit harsh, and is less interested in slipping by with a sly grin -- lots of clever rhymes here, although the only one I bothered to write down was, "fuck it/do anything for a ducat." A better mix would pull this over the cusp. B+(***) [dl]

Big K.R.I.T.: Return of 4Eva (2011, mixtape): Country rapper from Mississippi -- can't say I would have figured that out without help, but on the few occasions when he sings he doesn't stray far from the chitlin circuit. Nothing fancy about the raps either, or the low budget beats, but they keep coming. B+(***) [dl]

Big K.R.I.T.: 4Eva N a Day (2012, mixtape): Acronym supposed to mean "King Remembered in Time," but was also cut down from the previous handle Kritikal, a highfalutin' term for someone proud of his Mississippi country heritage. A- [dl]

Big K.R.I.T.: Live From the Underground (2012, Def Jam): By all accounts a studio album, and an advance budget-wise, picking up slicker and richer samples, plus a few guest shots -- notably Ludacris and B.B. King. A-

Bigg Jus: Machines That Make Civilization Fun (2012, Mush): Justin Ingleton, from New York, started out in Company Flow, moved south to Atlanta and released an EP, Plantation Rhymes. Raps over an industrial vibe, his own science-oriented rhymes impress, but when he goes instrumental, less so, until the title track comes on as some kind of horror show -- no fun at all. B+(*)

Blockhead: Interludes After Midnight (2012, Ninja Tune): Anthony Simon, best known for feeding beats to Aesop Rock, but now has a handful of solo albums. Twelve pieces, remarkably close to five minutes each. Vocals scattered, occasionally amusing, beats more often so. B+(***)

Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland: Black Is Beautiful (2012, Hyperdub): Early reviews attributed this to Hype Williams, a name that collides with that used by hip hop video producer Harold "Hype" Williams, so maybe there's some legal tussling going on. Fifteen merely numbered pieces, ranging from atmospheric to dubstep, the latter the better. B+(*)

Bright Moments: Natives (2012, Luaka Bop): Solo project from Kelly Pratt, who plays brass and winds for Coldplay, LCD Soundsystem, and Beirut. Keybs lead, the brass piles on, the rhythm just quirky enough label head David Byrne may have felt flattered. B

Chairlift: Something (2012, Columbia/DMZ/Kanine): Synthpop duo from Brooklyn (or Boulder or something like that), second album, the sort of thing I invariably enjoy even when it doesn't seem special. B+(*)

Ablaye Cissoko/Volker Goetze: Amanké Dionti (2012, Motéma): A kora player and singer from Mali, as calm and gentle as the quiet Saharan genre gets, with a wash of trumpet from a friendly German. B+(**) [cd]

Claro Intelecto: Reform Club (2012, Delsin): Mark Stewart, from Manchester, UK, fourth album. Little washes of synth over beats that always seem to be in the right place. Not much to albums like this, but often it pays to keep them simple. B+(*)

Cornershop: Urban Turban: The Singhles Club (2012, Ample Play): Took three plays for this to kick in pretty much all across the board, and the beats were key -- "greatest ever," says my wife. I don't have a roster of the rotating vocals -- foreign at first, but as they're all interesting, and turn into old friends. A-

Cypress Hill/Rusko: Cypress X Rusko (2012, V2/Cooperative, EP): Haven't followed the Latino hip-hop crew since I dismissed their highly touted 1991 debut, and indeed they've only dropped one album since 2004's Till Death Do Us Part, but they do get juiced up on dubstep beats here, at least for 5 cuts, 16:17. B+(*)

El-P: Cancer4Cure (2012, Fat Possum): Jaime Meline, more producer than rapper but has a handful of records now. Haven't accounted for guests (Killer Mike is one), but rhymes are so rapidfire I haven't parsed much, the beats with a trace of metal. Could be an blowaway album once you get the hang of it, but not yet. B+(***)

Garbage: Not Your Kind of People (2012, V2): Pretty great pop-rock album in 1995, decent follow up in 1998, increasingly infrequent efforts ever since then, this one ending a seven-year gap. Same basic sound, mostly keybs with extra fuzz, and that much still works. B+(*)

Glee Cast: Glee: The Music, Season Three: The Graduation Album (2012, Columbia): Three seasons, about time some of these twenty-somethings move on. I checked out their first couple albums and found them uninteresting if not quite unlistenable -- unlike the show, which can make a bad arrangement of a dreadful song watchable, even without a joke (although there are plenty -- some awful but so many zingers that, unlike Smash, you can imagine watching the show without the music). Especially without this music, which sends "We Are the Champions" so far over the top Freddy Mercury would blush, misconceives "Glory Days" and "Forever Young," and bottoms out in "Roots Before Branches." Still, Puckerman manages to squeeze out a passing grade with his slashing, snarling "School's Out." B-

Gossip: A Joyful Noise (2012, Columbia): Beth Ditto's band, probably more garage when founded in 2000 but leans more toward dance pop these days. Songcraft is pretty solid, and this is consistently enjoyable, but nothing threatens to break loose and turn into fun. B

Laurel Halo: Quarantine (2012, Hyperdub): Electronica, creates a very nebulous froth around otherworldly voices, nothing I can latch onto yet. B

Kelly Hogan: I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (2012, Anti-): Singer, not much of a songwriter (one song here), fifth album since 1996 but last one was a decade ago, time she spent backing Neko Case. A fine, clear voice, not enough twang or corn for Nashville; no real accent in the band, songs from off the beaten path -- not many folks cover Jon Langford or Robbie Fulks -- but aside from the Robyn Hitchcock title song nothing odd or perverse. B+(**)

Alan Jackson: Thirty Miles West (2012, ACR/EMI Nashville): Fifteenth album, wrote 6 (of 13) songs, by no means the best but not bad, keeps his neotrad country sound clean and pure, is such a natural that he never produces a bad album and such a pro that he always his his mark, a bit short of making history. B+(**)

Japanroids: Celebration Rock (2012, Polyvinyl): Garage rock duo from Vancouver, second album, dense and roiling but with little wasted energy -- the fireworks on "Continuous Thunder" a minor exception, but until the guitar cleared my first thought was an amplifier on the fritz. B+(**)

K-Holes: Dismania (2012, Hardly Art): New York punk band, named for schizophrenic episodes brought on by abuse of the drug ketamine. Second album, both male and female singers, considerable crunch, not much more. B+(*)

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music (2012, Williams Street): Georgia rapper, started out in the OutKast orbit but much more hardcore these days, smashing hard beats, crashing symbols, not gangsta because he don't really have an angle, just a view -- one that informs one of the most anti "Reagan" songs ever, one that finds salvation in truth. A-

Liars: WIXIW (2012, Mute): Guitar-synth-drums trio, originally considered dance-punk, now that they've lost all their hard edges sometimes touted as an American equivalent of Radiohead. This time at least they're harder, simpler, and dumber, which makes for a relatively tolerable album. B

Janiva Magness: Stronger for It (2012, Alligator): Blues singer, writes some, ninth album since 1997 (an early title that stands out is My Hard Luck Soul), third on Alligator. I'm unimpressed when she opens up and wails, but her more intimate songs sound lived in, her voice worn and rugged. B+(*)

JD McPherson: Signs & Signifiers (2010 [2012], Rounder): Singer-songwriter from Oklahoma, started out in a blues band called the Starkweather Boys (one album, from 2007). His voice is well suited for rockabilly, which is basically what this solo debut is, although he also uses honking sax for highlighting. Not sure how much meat is on the bones, especially once he settles in for rock and roll anthems, but the sound hits my sweet spot. B+(**)

Occupy This Album (2012, Razor & Tie, 4CD): Ninety-nine artists contribute ninety-nine songs for the 99%, on sale cheap, proceeds pledge to the movement. Leans more toward the folk of politics past than to the punk and rap of today, but the latter are show up and sometimes turn up the volume. Some are preachy, more are didactic, some just follow the crowd, or mean to move it. Some names are well known, most are obscure -- maybe a quarter below my radar. No point nitpicking: even if one song annoys you, something else is coming right along. The last disc does strike me as slacking off (or maybe it's just too alt-rocky), but I still want to hear it. Call that solidarity. A-

Of Montreal: Paralytic Stalks (2012, Polyvinyl): Athens, GA group, regarded as psychedelic because they synthesize a sloppy prog brew that sometimes amazes but more often turns out to be flabbergasting. This is more of the latter, although one song does stand out as an oasis of clarity: "Malefic Dowery." It accounts for 2:36 (out of 57:42). B-

Oh No: Ohnomite (2012, Five Day Weekend/Brick): Given name Michael Jackson; son of singer Otis Jackson, brother of hip-hop producer Otis Jackson Jr (dba Madlib), nephew of trumpeter Jon Faddis. Seventh album since 2004, counting two as Gangrene. "Whoop Ass" is a title, the beats kicking hard, the rhymes slamming even harder. B+(**)

Ponykiller: The Wilderness (2011, Housecore): The scant info available describes them as "a high-def grunge/psychedelic Prague rock band with modern pop undercurrents." Based in New Orleans, I'm least sure of what they mean by "Prague." Their grunge can get slippery, which is so off the point I suspect they're smarter than they sound, just not very creative. C+ [cd]

Porcelain Raft: Strange Weekend (2012, Secretly Canadian): Dream pop vehicle led by Mauro Remiddi, born in Italy but based in New York; looks to be more alias than group. Can get dense, as on the opener, but also opens up when the pace slackens and the synths retreat into an aura. B+(**)

Public Image Ltd.: This Is PIL (2012, PIL Official): The title song amounts to little more than brand assertion, dumber than usual for the insistence on their abbreviation. After that they relapse into song, their guitar tunings a bit softer and more refined than their old signature, a bit of ska worked in here and there. It's still a sound that works, just no longer a new one. B+(*)

Lee Ranaldo: Between the Times and the Tides (2012, Matador): Ex-Sonic Youth guitarist. AMG lists 16 albums under his name since 1987, but they are mostly scattered obscurities, jams with jazz musicians, guitar solos, etc. This looks to be the first that attempts to build on Sonic Youth's legacy, but you mostly hear that in the familiar ring of the guitar. The voice is unfamiliar and undistinguished; the songs more substantial but don't exactly grab you. B+(*)

Rye Rye: Go! Pop! Bang! (2012, NEET/Interscope): Ryeisha Berrain, from Baltimore, debuts on MIA's boutique label connected to the Universal megacorp. Has some rough spots but at best it's pure ear candy -- cf. "DNA," "Crazy Bitch," "Boom Boom." B+(***)

Saint Etienne: Words and Music by Saint Etienne (2012, Heavenly): Brit group with a French name, date back to 1991, haven't heard them since So Tough (1993), which was anything but tough. No new ideas here, just continues their pleasant synth pop, similar to but less dense than Garbage (and better for that). First song is a talkie, the most beguiling thing here. B+(**)

Seefeel: Seefeel (2011, Warp): British postrock group, cut a couple albums 1993-96, then this one, which aims for industrial ambience, the groan of machinery toned down to something that almost passes for easy listening. B+(**)

Sigur Rós: Valtari (2012, XL): Icelandic group, been around since 1997 although I never bothered with them before; led by a Jónsi Birgisson, who sings falsetto and uses a bow on his guitar -- presumably the point is to add exaltation to the churchy organ. Has a certain appeal, more so when they come back to earth and conjure up a shimmering ambience. B+(*)

Simian Mobile Disco: Unpatterns (2012, Wichita): UK electronica duo, James Ford and Jas Shaw, started out as plain old Simian. House, I gather, although I'm responding more to the disco. Some voice samples, but they mostly rely on their beats -- until they fall into fuzz at the end. B+(**)

Sly & Robbie: Blackwood Dub (2012, Groove Attack): Jamaica's legendary rhythm section, working with Alberto Blackwood on an instrumental album, all groove and a bit of echo. Nothing wrong with that. B+(*)

Smash Cast: The Music of Smash (2012, Columbia): First for the TV series, season one: I've never set through or put up with so many inept, inane, and just plain atrocious plot turns, even when I was a teenager and watched way too much TV. If some musty puritan wanted to prove that nothing good ever comes from sex, this show would make the case. Of course, the reason for putting up with all that is the music and dance -- mostly dance. Minus the visuals, the determination of the singers and the frenzy of the arrangements becomes excess. The gospel "Stand" is especially awful. Some of the show tunes work better, even if they haven't been fleshed out into a coherent story. Thirteen songs -- a small subset of all the music that appeared. B-

Patti Smith: Banga (2012, Columbia): Her Pulitzer prize seems to have tickled her ambition, especially on the two pieces that relate the discovery of America, "Amerigo" and the more violent "Constantine's Dream -- the latter followed by a calm, poignant cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." A-

Regina Spektor: What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (2012, Sire): Russian-American singer-songwriter, sixth album, has hung out in anti-folk circles in New York but plays piano, which gives her a touch of class she'd rather pass off as kitsch -- not that she cares to hide her cosmopolitanism. One song quotes "Don't Let Me Be Understood"; another reworks "Ne Me Quitte Pas"; one of the strongest is chiselled from guttural Russian. B+(**)

The Starkweather Boys: Archer St. Blues (2007, Charlier): JD McPherson's previous group, based in Tulsa, lacks the sax of his solo record but makes up for it with pedal steel when they want to sound jazzy like western swing or just crank up the guitars when they when they want to rock a blues. Looks like their only album, mostly McPherson originals but they end with one from Little Richard. Forty years ago this would have sounded retro. Now it's just classic. B+(**)

Tedeschi Trucks Band: Live: Everybody's Talkin' (2012, Sony Classical, 2CD): This continues to be a fruitful merger, with Susan Tedeschi taking most of the vocals and Derek Trucks leading on guitar. They do tend to jam at length, the eleven songs averaging close to ten minutes each. Note that the best is the shortest ("Rollin' and Tumblin'"), but even the one with the flute is fun. B+(*)

Tindersticks: The Something Rain (2010-11 [2012], Consetllation): British group, dates back to 1992 through a dozen albums although I've never heard them before. Will note that their Island comp was called Working for the Man, and that they have a 5-CD box of Claire Denis Film Scores: 1996-2009. This has a relaxed, melancholy feel, the first cut just spoken word over a 9:04 vamp. B+(*)

Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game (2012, Decca): Offspring of two of my favorite singer-songwriters, plying the family trade in his own distinct way: divaesque voice, lush tones, slow enough to parade about without a hint of fun. B-

Jack White: Blunderbuss (2012, Third Man): Like, oh, Bruce Springsteen, White is held in esteem for his fidelity to rock and roll virtues. He's a big name despite a rather low profile, his first album under his own name showing no hint of swelling his head. The title suggests an antiquated explosive prone to backfiring, so he handles it with care. The result is unsurprising and uninteresting but not without its pleasures -- notably, none more so than the song he didn't write, "I'm Shakin'." Some day he'll inevitably turn in a whole album of covers, and while it will seem anticlimactic to his fans, I expect it will be his best ever, and no doubt the happiest. B+(**)

Neil Young/Crazy Horse: Americana (2012, Reprise): Young and his band take a dozen familiar folk songs and make them sound like a typical Neil Young and Crazy Horse album: lots of grungy guitar; stiff, cloven beats; nasal vocals. Neat trick, especially when you don't expect it, as on the opening "Oh Susannah." On the other hand, the lead-in to "This Land Is Your Land" comes so close to Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper you expect some humor but there is none. Then the ultimate let down: when I saw "God Save the Queen" as the closer, I hoped he'd be doing the Sex Pistols but instead we get the British national anthem. Hadn't thought through how the former might work, but dammit: we fought two wars to escape from that stupid song. B+(*)


Records I looked for but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • Actress: RIP (2012, Honest Jon's)
  • Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (2012, Firehouse 12)
  • Retisonic: Robots Fucking (2012, Arctic Rodeo)
  • Screaming Females: Ugly (2012, Don Giovanni)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Aretha Franklin: You Grow Closer [Peacock Gospel Classics] (1956 [2003], MCA): The fourteen-year-old preacher's kid showing off for the folks at her dad's New Bethel Baptist Church, originally on JVB and much purloined ever after (Rhapsody has three other versions, including Aretha Gospel on Chess); she plays piano and raises the rafters with grim songs -- two with "blood" in the title, one the choir-backed "He Will Wash You White as Snow"; primitive, amateurish, scary. B

Aretha Franklin: Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo (1960-61 [1961], Columbia): Aside from some gospel cut barely in her teens, her first album, still just 18 but in full voice and remarkably poised, standards and originals by arranger J. Leslie McFarland, with various backing, notably including Ray Bryant on piano, Al Sears on tenor sax and/or Quentin Jackson on trombone; Rhapsody has 2011 remasters and a mixed bag of bonus cuts but I haven't find a matching CD release. A-

Aretha Franklin: The Electrifying Aretha Franklin (1962, Columbia): John Hammond and Richard Wess struggle to find arrangements that work, throwing together various mixes of strings, big bands, and small combos, and she struggles mightily to overcome them; one exception is the big band-propelled "Rough Lover." B+(**)

Aretha Franklin: The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin (1962, Columbia): Robert Mersey's strings spoil nearly every arrangement, and even her magnificent voice sometimes serves her ill -- hope I never hear this "God Bless the Child" again; on the other hand, no fault of hers that she comes up short on "Try a Little Tenderness" -- Otis Redding's definitive take was still to come. B-

Aretha Franklin: Laughing on the Outside (1963, Columbia): More strings, more standards, done at a crawl -- "Skylark," "Make Someone Happy," "Solitude," "Until the Real Thing Comes Around," "I Wanna Be Around"; she seems hopelessly trapped, but eventually you tune out the arrangements and take comfort in her suffering. B

Aretha Franklin: Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington (1964 [1995], Columbia/Legacy): Franklin could out-belt Ethel Merman, anyone really, so it's no surprise that she winds up murdering Dinah; the songbook breaks some ground for Franklin -- "Cold, Cold Heart," "Drinking Again," "Evil Gal Blues" -- but doesn't open her up, while Robert Mersey's strings are as anesthesizing as ever. B-

Aretha Franklin: Runnin' Out of Fools (1964, Columbia): Ex-Mercury A&R director Clyde Otis takes the reins, finally giving up on shoehorning Franklin into the jazz tradition, turning her loose on contemporary pop covers -- "Mockingbird," "Walk On By," "My Girl," and "The Shoop Shoop Song" are amusing novelties, but she finds her calling on "You'll Lose a Good Thing"; question is: did anyone at Columbia notice? B+(**)

Aretha Franklin: Yeah!!! (1965, Columbia): Subtitled In Person: With Her Quartet, notably guitarist Kenny Burrell, a live return to the standards repertoire -- "Misty," "Love for Sale," but also "If I Had a Hammer" and "There Is No Greater Love"; great voice, but little nuance -- she powers through everything, and the quartet gets little chance to jazz it up. B+(*)

Aretha Franklin: Aretha Arrives (1967, Atlantic): Second album on Atlantic, cobbled together from outtakes and live shots and rushed out when I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) struck it rich; one hit ("Baby I Love You"), a remarkable cover of "Nite Life" (at least until the live band hams it up), a furious live "Satisfaction" that was her only non-chart single in 1967-68, more obvious filler that she's better than. B+(***)

Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul (1968, Atlantic): Third album on her Atlantic run, short (28:41) but packed with remarkable songs including her towering domination of "A Natural Woman"; two more top-10 hits, filler as sweet and slippery as "Groovin'" and as powerful as "Good to Me as I Am to You." A

Aretha Franklin: Aretha Now (1968, Atlantic): As strong as she got, burning through ten songs, adding something to singers like Sam Cooke ("You Send Me") and especially Big Bill Broonzy ("Night Time Is the Right Time") -- a non-single because she works it hard for 4:50 where her hits ("Think," "See Saw") typically came in just over 2 minutes. A

Aretha Franklin: Aretha in Paris (1968, Atlantic): Third album of the year, a greatest hits live set dumped out quick while she was hot; redundant and unnecessary, still hard to fault either the singer or the songs, especially on "Nite Life." B+(**)

Aretha Franklin: This Girl's in Love With You (1970, Atlantic): She wrote one song, "Call Me," not nearly as good as the song Al Green would attach to that title; otherwise a hit-and-miss covers album, her gospelized Beatles pumping up "Let It Be" and salvaging more from "Eleanor Rigby" than Ray Charles managed; then there is "Sit Down and Cry," which does just that. B+(***)

Aretha Franklin: Live at Fillmore West (1971 [1972], Atlantic): Original release, culled from three nights, runs 10 songs, 48:32, including two takes of "Spirit in the Dark" (the "reprise" with Ray Charles), a couple of her fast ones turned up a notch ("Respect," "Dr. Feelgood"), a few that make you scratch your head, or elsewhere ("Love the One You're With," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Eleanor Rigby"); it's mostly loud, but nothing Franklin can't sing over; also available in a much expanded 2-CD Deluxe Edition (2004), and a 4-CD stretched so thin they let King Curtis lead "Mr. Bojangles" (Don't Fight the Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis at Fillmore West) -- I figure the original is long enough. B+(*)

Aretha Franklin: Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly, 1972 (1972 [2007], Rhino Handmade): More impressive than the live albums Atlantic released: by this time, like Elvis, she's opening with "Also Sprach Zarathustra," before seguing into "This Girl's in Love With You"; she's compressing hits into medleys, manages to drench "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with so much soul I forgot what song it was, gives her piano a feature, and closes with a revivalist "Spirit in the Dark." B+(***)

Aretha Franklin: Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (1973, Atlantic): Easy enough to blame this on Quincy Jones, who at the time probably still considered himself a jazz man, not that there has ever been any evidence that it did any good to nudge her toward jazz; a few songs she rescues from the production, and a few that get out of hand, with the gospel inflections as culpable as the jazz. B-

Aretha Franklin: Let Me in Your Life (1974, Atlantic): Of this, Christgau wrote, "her great gift is her voice, but her genius is her bad taste." I noticed the bad taste, which she delivers with great power and poise, but I wouldn't call that genius. B

Aretha Franklin: Sparkle (1976, Atlantic): Nominally a soundtrack, penned by Curtis Mayfield no less, the eight songs hold up well and aren't weighted down by the moods and motions that connect most soundtracks; some even sparkle, although with Franklin's voice you wouldn't expect so many backup singers -- I guess the films was about a Supremes-like group, but there's no mistaking the lead here. B+(*)

Aretha Franklin: Aretha (1980, Arista): Sparkle was Franklin's only gold record between 1972 and 1982, and is her only Atlantic in print (or online) after 1974's Let Me Into Your Life, a decline too easily blamed on disco, but her label change in 1980 started a mini-comeback: this album peaked modestly at 47 -- better than any of the deleted Atlantics -- and the next few climbed to 36, 23, 36, and 13 with Who's Zoomin' Who? Producer Chuck Jackson manages to connect Aretha's classic soul with contemporary R&B, but it doesn't necessarily work; as a wise man once wondered, "can you imagine Doobie-in' your funk?" B

Aretha Franklin: Love All the Hurt Away (1981, Arista): The title cut finally moderates her enough to ease into the flow of 1980s R&B -- it's a duet with George Benson, who absorbs enough neutrons to chill an atom bomb; a brassy cover ("Hold On! I'm Comin'") turns up the heat, the funk feels real, and she can turn a ballad when the time's right. B+(**)

Aretha Franklin: Jump to It (1982, Arista): First gold record since Sparkle, produced and mostly written by Luther Vandross, who draws out a sweeter timbre in her voice by keeping her from oversinging -- suggests she may have a future as a soul professional, not as an indomitable force of nature. B+(**)

Aretha Franklin: Get It Right (1983, Arista): Luther Vandross produces again, although note that his first four songs are co-credited to Marcus Miller, who jacks up the funk groove and adds fuzz to the bass, not that Vandross doesn't do his damnedest to keep it in check; Franklin goes with the flow, adding just enough to every song -- even though only "I Wish It Would Rain" has much to it. A-

Aretha Franklin: Aretha (1986, Arista): Third album with this title, second in six years with Arista, bidding for a first-name-only status that causes me agita every time I jot down "Franklin"; her best album since 1972 was Who's Zoomin' Who?, produced by Narada Michael Walden, back this time but less resourceful. B

Aretha Franklin: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (1987, Arista, 2CD): Back to church, live, with more than a little preaching -- including prayer invocation and/or intros by Revs. Cecil Franklin, Jaspar Williams, Donald Parsons, and Jesse Jackson, plus guests like Mavis Staples and Joe Ligon; this runs on and on, and I don't have much patience for the fury unleashed, but it's often remarkable, as much in the cadence of the sermons as in song; looks like there is also a budget 1-CD version, but I haven't seen the cuts. B+(*)

Aretha Franklin: What You See Is What You Sweat (1991, Arista): Opens with "Everyday People" and closes with a "singles remix" of same, a framework that would be perfunctory for a lesser artist; in between she goes through the motions without breaking a sweat. B

Aretha Franklin: So Damn Happy (2003, Arista): Only her second album in more than a decade: 1998's A Rose Is Still a Rose missed this rundown because I bought it when it was new, but it established a new standard for how she would cope with the evolved nu soul universe; this follows up in the same mode, her once domineering voice now reduced to the first among equals, equally able to blend in and to raise highlights. B+(**)

Donna Summer: The Wanderer (1980, Geffen): Wandering into rock, not that she hadn't broken that ground with Bad Girls, and off to a new label which hasn't had the good sense to keep one of her better records in print -- no big hits, I suppose, but they'd get in the way of the organic flow, which downshifts at the end with a Jesus song that will disappoint no one. A- [dl]

Donna Summer: Crayons (2008, Burgundy): The disco diva's only album since 1999, a major production and something of a hit (peaked at #17 on the album chart); she had a hand writing all of the pieces, got a lot of help with the production, and sang as hard as ever; the singles material is mixed up front, but the tail end drags, or grinds on the fast ones. B


Everything streamed from Rhapsody, except as noted in brackets following the grade:

  • [cd] based on physical cd (but made most sense to review here)
  • [bc] available at bandcamp.com
  • [dl] something I was able to download from the web; may be freely available, or may be a promo deal