The hype on the new Aretha Franklin album would have us believe that this is her best work since the Sixties, when a string of nowclassic albums with Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin established her as the definitive female soul singer. Even the press bio that accompanied Who's Zoomin' Who? claims the record has been "hailed by critics as one of the true landmark albums of [Franklin's] career." A critic not consulted in this prerelease poll is naturally a little skeptical, especially since Aretha's career was already resurrected once recently... Read More
under the tender loving care of Luther Vandross. On Jump to It
, Vandross recaptured the spirit of Aretha's early work its vibrancy, assurance and emotional impact by keeping things simple (but quite sophisticated) and finding a common ground of instinct and inspiration. But that ground didn't prove too solid when it came to a follow-up collaboration: Get It Right
never really clicked, and without a jolting single like "Jump to It," both singer and producer seemed to be going through their professional motions.
Narada Michael Walden, who's had a respectable, wide-ranging but largely uneventful career as a performer and producer, would hardly seem the man to snap Aretha Franklin into high gear again. His eclectic approach on Zoomin', where every track has an entirely different feel, sounds unsure and unsettled at first, especially after Vandross' supremely confident, uniformly highgloss productions. And one's hopes aren't exactly raised by the album's first single, "Freeway of Love," an overcalculated pop song that tries very hard for funky abandon and ends up with a lot more flash than feeling. Aretha is clearly having fun here she zings the innuendoes and cruises, top down, through the sexual metaphor of her pink Cadillac ("Take a ride in my machine"). But "Freeway" never delivers on its promise of an "extended throwdown." Like that car, it's attention-getting but kinda tacky.
With "Freeway" as the opening cut, Who's Zoomin' Who? could be headed for a dead end, but Walden and Franklin turn things around again and again this is an album full of unexpected moves and from nearly every angle, Aretha is at the top of her form. Two of the most satisfying songs were produced by Franklin herself, with a control and clarity that should make Wexler and Mardin proud. "Sweet Bitter Love," which Aretha first recorded twenty years ago for Columbia, has a gospellike intensity here. Against a subtly sketched-in track, Franklin's vocals are measured and deliberate at the start but throbbing with barely contained emotion. As Aretha lets loose, she fills every line with pain and regret, stretching or stuttering out words, shouting, then hushing down her feelings. What's revealed here is nothing compared to what's held back, and this aching restraint gives "Sweet Bitter Love" more impact in five minutes than most people get into a whole album.