ARETHA FRANKLIN; A Brand New Me (Atlantic Rhino)

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A few years back, music producers Nick Patrick and Don Reedman were asked to celebrate the music of a certain Elvis Presley by adding new, imaginative, orchestral backing tracks to a selection of some of his best loved songs. The result was generally well received, though veteran Elvis purists weren’t completely convinced.

Right now the soul world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of ARETHA FRANKLIN joining Atlantic Records, and to mark the occasion the Atlantic/Rhino execs decided that it would be a “good idea” to bring in Patrick and Reedman to do the same with the Queen’s back catalogue. As they did with the Elvis project the pair brought the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra into the Abbey Road studios to create the new tracks over which Ms F’s classic vocals would be floated. With a little technical wizardry and a lot of love, the album is now available and cleverly titled ‘A Brand New Me’ after one of the set’s key cuts.

And that Gamble-Huff song (originally recorded by Aretha on ’72’s ‘Young Gifted And Black’ album) is typical of what you can expect. The production is massive, and here Patrick and Reedman dip their brushes into the big swing band palette and it works beautifully. Elsewhere productions and arrangement are even bigger and much more lavish –witness the opener ‘Think’. For this the producers try the Phil Spector “kitchen sink” approach. Indeed Spector’s ‘River Deep Mountain High’ seems to be the inspiration behind the treatment here.

SJF’s favourites, right now are ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ and ‘Angel’. Both were things of total beauty in their original incarnations and with the new arrangements they remain just that. On ‘Prayer’, Patrick and Reedman preface the song with sweet, shimmering strings while on ‘Angel’ those RPO strings work the same magic; on both, THAT sumptuously soulful vocal remains right up front – the star of the show. The producers know that’s the secret. No point in tampering with a masterpiece; maybe enhance or renew the frame!

As with the Elvis project, ‘A Brand New Me’ won’t please every Aretha fan. But while we wait for totally new material, this will satisfy. At worst, it gives food for thought and a chance to debate; at best if offers the opportunity to enjoy those knee-trembling vocals all over again!

(BB) 3/5