Old/New Albums: Aretha Franklin’s “Young, Gifted And Black”

ygbThis is one of only two albums on my already-chosen (though flexible) list of albums for this series that feature a female vocalist. That might change in the next few months based on what new albums I add to my library, but for now it’s where we’re at.

Aretha Franklin is undisputed as one of the most pioneering and groundbreaking voices of the last 100 years. It really is undeniable when you listen to her belt out tunes like “Respect,” “Think,” “Chain Of Fools” and “I Say A Little Prayer.”

She’s got some pipes. And I think knowing this makes her album Young, Gifted And Black just a bit lackluster for me. This isn’t to say she doesn’t deliver phenomenal Aretha vocals, but only a little sticks out to me like it has on her other releases.

As with most of these albums (I will probably unpack this idea more in the ending wrap-up post on this series), after multiple listens, the album started to grow on me. I’ll stick to my original opinion that I’d take other Aretha albums over this one, but I’d also feel comfortable recommending this one to a friend.

Musically, there is a fair amount here that picks up speed after a few listens. I think initially, this album just isn’t attention-grabbing. But once you let it sink in, there are some songs that really pop. Granted, it’s tough to go wrong when the short list of contributing musicians includes Dr. John, Billy Preston, Donny Hathaway and The Memphis Horns.

You can hear their influence throughout the album. Musically, it almost feels more like a Donny Hathaway record with Aretha providing vocals. And that might be why this isn’t a record to completely ignore, but there are other Aretha albums that feel more like “Aretha Albums.” Almost all of Donny’s albums have a few songs that don’t seem to ever take hold; they exist in this weird musical purgatory where I keep waiting for the song to hit, or some sort of rhythm to emerge, or something. On this album, “All The King’s Horses,” “First Snow In Kokomo” and others have that exact feeling. 80% of the song feels like an intro and then there is one chorus with drums or more instrumentation that makes it feel like an actual pop song, and then all of a sudden it ends.

Prime example: “Young, Gifted And Black” next to “All The King’s Horses.” My dislike is exaggerated due to the lumping of these two songs in the track list; putting them next to each other highlights how much they slow down the album’s momentum.

But when the momentum is up, the album is so fun. The musicians are firing on all cylinders and they’ve got some really fantastic moments. “Day Dreaming” has such a cool interplay between the bossa nova beat and the vocal rhythm of the hook. If that wasn’t enough, it’s got just a plain sexy, smooth chord progression. It’s a head-bobber, for sure.

And then it’s followed by “Rock Steady,” a showcase piece of straight funk splashed with Aretha’s soulful vocal. This tune is a jam. My appreciation for the tune blossomed once I introduced it to my electric guitar. I can’t imagine how much fun the band had recording this one.

So YGB is very hit or miss for me. Some songs are very skippable, and some are awesome. I think it’s helped me realize that with old soul, it adheres itself best to my brain when it retains some structure of straightforward pop music. When I listen to someone like Aretha, or Al Green, or Donny, or Bobby Womack, or any ’60s/’70s soul artist, I respond best when I hear a really mean hook. And traditional soul is less about the musical hook and more about vocal emotion.

And this album is replete with vocal emotion. It’s Aretha, for crying out loud. There might not be anything as groundbreaking as “Respect” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” but Aretha’s vocal is powerful and undeniable. Her voice alone is enough to warrant a solid listening of Young, Gifted And Black.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Day Dreaming
  2. Rock Steady
  3. Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)

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