A young Aretha Franklin began her recording career singing "Today I Sing the Blues," and those lyrics still possess resonance 38 years later.
Two new Franklin discs, The Delta Meets Detroit: Aretha's Blues (Rhino) and A Rose Is a Rose (Arista) underscore the singer's ongoing infatuation with performing the blues - but a blues daringly redefined and personalized.
While African-American vocalists throughout this century have recorded many songs about mistreatment and the aches of victimhood, Aretha Franklin has always concentrated on blues marked by the spirit of dignity, cool self-possession, and the demand for respect. The 16 songs on the Rhino disc - high points from Franklin's fruitful association with Atlantic Records during the 1960s and '70s - are strident, boastful, and prideful.
"Pitiful," a jazzy big-band number, finds Franklin declaring self-pity, yet it is such a rebellious and raucous tone that it's impossible to feel pity for her. Even better is her first new album in seven years. "A Rose Is a Rose" is arguably Franklin's best effort in two decades.
The title cut is an extraordinary anthem about maintaining self-respect throughout love's ups and downs.
Jagged hip-hop rhythms and overdubs complement Franklin's sizzling gospel-tinged scat, swoops, and shouts. A spoken-word introduction establishes an intimate connection between Franklin and her subject, a young woman disappointed by her man.
"I realize that you've been hurt ... deeply," she confides, then reminds the woman, a stand-in perhaps for the young Aretha, "Darling, you hold the power."
In a voice as fresh and exuberant as a teenager's, Aretha Franklin has rejuvenated her career. This memorable collection of ballads and up-tempo tunes succeeds because of Franklin's intensely passionate soaring vocals, conveying a hauntingly upbeat interpretation of the blues, the music of spiritual endurance.