The Queen of Soul-ed Out?

Yesterday, I saw a link to a leak (why do they call it that? Just say it’s an early release or something, it’s not like a sniper’s hunting down these people) of a song from Aretha Franklin’s new album, consisting of cover songs. I looked at the track list, and Aretha made some good choices. What stuck out the most, obviously, was the first track, “Rolling in the Deep” by the ever-popular Adele. “This should be good,” I thought, not really knowing what to expect.

So I clicked on the link, and was presented with a studio cut of the song, which sounded pretty good for a 72-year-old, minus the annoying backing vocals, especially when they launch into “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” towards the end of the song, which has nothing to with Adele or the point of “Rolling in the Deep” or anything. I think they had to put it in there so Motown fanatics could hop on board, because change is scary.

And then I saw the comments.

Most of which implied that the recording used (with or without the Queen’s knowledge) the dreaded AutoTune, scourge of the music industry and sworn enemy of music purists. I took another listen, and I honestly couldn’t tell much of a difference. Every now and then, I would hear something that sounded a bit non-human, but for the most part, it’s Aretha, and very much so.

Other comments directed me to Aretha’s recent performance of the song on David Letterman. The first thing I noticed was “wow, Aretha looks great.” My second thought? “This does sound different.” Granted, that’s the thrill of the live performance; you hear things that might not be there on the recording. No two performances sound alike, and there were a few moments where Aretha backed up from the mic and I missed a word, or she rushed through a lyric, or something. It sounded similar, but not the same as the recording, but it’s still the Queen of Soul.

My thoughts?

Of course, AutoTune is evil, but that’s only when the powers that be use it for nefarious purposes, like making a bad singer sound good or making someone sound completely different (in a good or bad way) from how they actually sound. However, there are probably some benefits to pitch correction. If time is of the essence, it can be a quick fix on a 95% perfect take, just so everyone can go home an hour earlier. On the original cast recording of The Pajama Game, there’s one song that always bothered me, “Once-A-Year Day.” In the recording, Jerry Orbach (who was not a young man at the time), stops mid-word to wheeze. It’s a very obvious wheeze. and it’s also very obvious that it’s not in the song. If they had used AutoTune, they probably could have corrected it, or at least modulated it a little bit. That’s the good side of AutoTune; masking one obvious mistake from an otherwise perfect take.

Even if there was some pitch-matching software involved, it’s still a very good recording and sounds very much like the singer. Also, she’s seventy-two years old, and with age comes vocal changes and fatigue, so I think she’s earned the right to use AutoTune to make a decent song then have a raspy, pitchy track that critics will tear up.

Hear it for yourself here:

The Studio Version

The Letterman Version

What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “The Queen of Soul-ed Out?

  1. I listened to the track today. The article writer said up front that there were commenters who didn’t favour her take on the song. But I enjoyed it, and like you said, the voice sounds pretty much like hers – unaltered.
    You may be right about wanting to cater to Motown diehards by adding the Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, but it’s a seamless way of adding interest to the song and making it solidly different from Adele’s version.
    I’ve actually recorded a few songs with a group on a compilation album, and there’s one song I always skip over whenever I play it. Had I known about autotune then, I probably would have suggested it.
    And finally. Was that Cissy Houston singing back-up? I realize that’s what she did all those years ago – but she kinda had the look of not wanting to be there. But maybe it’s just me.

  2. Great post! I found a ‘link’ a few days ago, listened and…liked it! I can’t hear the auto-tune… I heard Aretha is known through the industry for being able to do a single take recording in the studio. I also like you reminding us she is in her seventies. I’m ready to hear more of the upcoming album!

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