ARETHA FRANKLIN: THIS CHRISTMAS (2008)
1) Angels We Have Heard On High; 2) This Christmas; 3) My Grown Up Christmas List; 4) The Lord Will Make A Way; 5) Silent Night; 6) Ave Maria; 7) Christmas Ain't Christmas (Without The One You Love); 8) Angels; 9) One Night With The King; 10) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; 11) 'Twas The Night Before Christmas.
For a moment out there, it might have seemed like the Queen was holding serious plans to clean up her act. Upon the release of So Damn Happy, she severed her ties with Arista — giving the album title a whole new meaning — a thing she should have done a long, long time ago; twenty three years on that rotten label gave her barely enough good songs to fill up one side of an LP. She then opened up her own label and announced a new title, A Woman Falling Out Of Love, for which some sessions were held but nothing eventually materialized.
And then we get this: a Christmas album (!) with the lady not only showing us her full girth (!!), first time ever, but also wearing the tackiest red dress ever made (!!!) and, furthermore, making it Borders-exclusive (!!!!; since then, re-released on DMI records and made available for Santa Claus fans all over the world, not just those who do their Christmas shopping at Borders). After three decades of piss-poor records, there is no way whatsoever that a Borders-exclusive Christmas album from the Great-grandmother of soul could make us happy. It sold something like thirty thousand copies, and earned her some of her worst reviews to date, especially from obligation-free fans who have earned their inalienable right to despise red dresses, Borders, and Christmas albums through a properly regulated diet of multicultural / intellectual values.
It is hard to believe any of them took a proper listen to the album, though, because if anyone did, surely at least one voice in the crowd could have stated the obvious: this is the best-sounding Aretha Franklin album since at least 1975-76. Not in regard to singing, no. But the arrangements, after so many years of technological fluff, are very pleasant. Aretha herself plays a lot of piano (the most, I think, she'd ever played since the Atlantic heyday); the rhythm section adheres to the old values of classic R'n'B and occasionally even manages to kick some funky ass ('The Lord Will Make A Way'); lots of nostalgic Hamoond organ and real strings arrangements; and not one single half-hearted, corny attempt at sounding «modern». The idea is to make a Christmas album, and make it in a way that the real Aretha Franklin would have made it — say, around 1970. The presence of Mary J. Blige is not required.
If you judge any Aretha Franklin record by one and the same parameter — the shape her voice is in — then, of course, even What You See Is What You Sweat (a.k.a. What You Hear Is What You Puke) is a far superior record. The lady is getting old; the lady is relying ever and ever more on that raspy «dying-dog» falsetto that should not be concentrated upon, for fear of provoking condescending or embarrassed emotions. Some of the higher notes are blown, and certainly such a demanding benchmark as 'Ave Maria' should have been left off. Furthermore, the duet with her son on 'This Christmas' suffers from overt cuteness and could have done without the struggling-to-be-funny bit of «telephone monologue».
But let us face it — it makes no sense to expect a 66-year old belt it out with the power, range, and precision of a 30-year old. At this point, the only reason to keep on listening to new Franklin records, other than irrational stubborness, is a faint hope to hear traces of deep soul attitude, and This Christmas offers more of these traces than all of her Arista records put together — because this is her first record in a long, long time where she is not trying to prove anything, but is simply being herself. And the music, correspondingly, is being itself.
As much as I am skeptical of Christmas albums (see the Aimee Mann Christmas album review for more details on that), this one, being taken in its chronological context, is much more than just a Christmas album for Aretha. It is unlikely to be followed by anything as good any time soon — but even if it is her very last album of «original» material, it forms a nice redeeming conclusion to thirty years of shame and horror. As a bonus, you get one of the most original, if not necessarily the most artistically successful, personal readings of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas' ever put on record. Thumbs up — modestly, but firmly.
Check "This Christmas" (CD) on Amazon
Check "This Christmas" (MP3) on Amazon