Aretha Franklin Gives Competition a Derivative Album

Talk about an inflamed case of duet-itis . On "Through the Storm," queen-o'-soul Aretha Franklin's first album since last year's live gospel set, half of the LP's eight tracks have her sharing lead vocals with the likes of Elton John, James Brown, niece Whitney Houston and the Four Tops.

Apparently, Julio, Willie and Barbra were all booked up.

The curiosity factor is high for this--Franklin's first secular studio album since 1987's Grammy winning gold LP "Aretha"--thanks not only to those collaborations but also to a remake of one of Franklin's most-loved '60s hits, "Think."

But the disappointment factor is equally high for the album, which will be in stores on Tuesday. While Franklin's undiminished vocal power sets even her weakest work apart from that of her upstart wanna-bes, the problem is that "Through the Storm"--like so many of Franklin's recent albums before it--is all too derivatively designed to be competitive with those upstarts.

Narada Michael Walden, one of the most overrated producers in the business, is responsible for half of the songs and fills them with stock synthesizer sounds that could be generic backing tracks for Houston or almost any middle-of-the-road black singer.

In this day and age, why program computers to emulate horns--especially on an Aretha Franklin album, of all things? If she could afford real brass 20 years ago, couldn't Clive Davis lend her the money to hire a real horn section for more than one track here? (The ubiquitous Kenny G does show up for a sax solo, which is small consolation indeed.)

"Think '89" is a strong enough song to survive the modern-dance updating, though it's a pale shadow of the original. As for the duets, Elton John and the Four Tops prove instantly forgettable, and poor James Brown seems to be doing Eddie Murphy doing James Brown.

Only "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be" lives up to its potential for fun, with combative Aretha and Whitney playfully dissing each other over their mutual boyfriend--though two grown women fighting each other for the affection of an admitted two-timer strains the bounds of taste, even in this light musical fiction.

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