Thursday, March 1, 2012

Amazing Grace by Aaron Cohen

 (Continuum) That the 1972 double-LP live gospel album Amazing Grace is Aretha Franklin’s best selling, despite not containing any of her canonized classics, is no surprise. I can’t really think of any other successful Aretha record that feels like a cohesive album. Despite her rise to superstardom overlapping with the Sgt. Peppers-era of album-oriented concept art grandness, Franklin was really a singles artist, though she’s rarely thought of that way because “singles artist” implies some kind of pop/AM radio/bubblegum/Dick Clark fleetingness. Her hits don’t brand her as a Top 40-chaser because Franklin’s remarkable voice imbues the weight, depth, and profoundness of another artist’s double album into three minutes. So it’ makes sense that the church-trained vocalist achieves full-length glory when she addresses something bigger than herself, mortal love, and the music industry. The spiritual/political (though still personal/familial) Amazing Grace was amazing and graceful because Franklin was returning to the church in a big, sincere, loving way, and as Cohen argues, she is accepted by the pew-sitters mainly because Rev. C.L. Franklin’s daughter truly never left. One of the most straightforward explorations of an LP in the 33 1/3 series of brief books (each devoted to an iconic album), Cohen explores the recording process, talks to the surviving musicians (though not Franklin, herself) about the technical and conceptual aspects of the recording, and goes through the album track by track, giving critical, historical, and technical info. However, the book never feels dry or record-collector centric. Maintaining a casual, short tangent-amenable, lively tone, and folding in a meticulously researched history of gospel music (with Franklin legitimately connected by blood, love, or professional experience to every major player since the genre’s birth), Cohen makes his experience as an editor at Downbeat (and his obsessions with gospel music) count. The author has crafted a study of one of the greatest recorded examples of praise music that is, indeed, praiseworthy.

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