Robert Christgau:
Expert Witness

Sam Cooke / Aretha Franklin / The Flaming Lips / Bette Midler / James Brown


Bring It On Home:
Black America Sings Sam Cooke

(Ace)

As a benighted one who admires Cooke’s voice and songwriting without adoring them, I like the way these 24 cover versions reconceptualize the beloved departed. It’s as if Cooke’s crossover convinced all the soul singers who followed him out of gospel that simply by marshaling their intelligence and pretending to be nicer than they had any reason to be they could achieve . . . not equality (I mean, get real), but undreamed-of levels of acclaim and material well-being. Not all of them did, of course—with or without racism, show business is a bitch. But the positivity that lifts every track here is both inspiring and poignant. And for us benighted there’s the bonus of improvements on the originals: Percy Sledge moaning “You Send Me,” Mel Carter sweetening “When a Boy Falls in Love,” Theola Kilgore feminizing “Chain Gang,” Johnny Nash reciting “Wonderful World” like maybe he can be an A student after all. And more. A


Aretha Franklin: Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics

(RCA)

At 72 her voice has lost range and clarity, so if athleticism is your thing, maybe you’d better go buy that Whitney’s greatest live excrescence I couldn’t get past track six of. With Aretha I always thought vocal quality trumped vocal ability—the latter merely extraordinary, the former unfathomable. At present, the voice has taken on a squall I identify with Bobby Bland and hear in Mahalia Jackson too—a phlegmy, self-possessed, powerful, interesting old person’s voice. The interpretations aren’t definitive—Etta James still owns “At Last,” there are better “Teach Me Tonight”s, and although Aretha’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” is her own, Sinead’s remains not only definitive but stranger and better. And although I get how jealous she is of Barbra Streisand and Ms. Houston, I still don’t ever want to hear “People” or “I’m Every Woman” again. Yet somehow, when I let my guard down, I catch myself chuckling over how she floats and rocks and skirls and squalls through each of them. And I hope neither Gloria Gaynor nor Adele Adkins is too much of a diva not to be tickled by “Rolling in the Deep” and “I Will Survive,” regal interpolations and all. A MINUS


The Flaming Lips:
With a Little Help From My Fwends

(Warner Bros.)

You don’t have to hate Sgt. Pepper to think it couldn’t do with a little ribbing, travesty, desecration. In fact, you could love it as much as I do and think that. As hilarious sobersides from multiple generations charge indignantly that the Lips and their various beards fail to “interpret” the songs, all three modes of deconstruction are in play on this grand hoot of a fore-to-aft remake. Highlights for me include a theme statement that gains meanings it never had from its attendant distortions, a creaky “When I’m Sixty-Four,” Miley Cyrus so sweet on “Lucy in the Sky,” and Julianna Barwick adding just what “She’s Leaving Home” cries out for—a female voice. Only “Fixing a Hole” truly fizzles. As for “A Day in the Life,” yeah—the original rocks. A MINUS


Bette Midler: It’s the Girls!

(Warner Bros.)

When Midler covered the Dixie Cups and the Shangri-Las in 1972, she was reclaiming “rock”’s female principle. So on this tribute and Christmas gift, the artist who did so much to make “girl group” a brand and a byword broadens its reach. In addition to mining the great American songbook of Goffin-King, Mann-Weill, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, she invites the foundational Boswell Sisters, the Cuban-born DeCastro Sisters, cover queens the Chordettes, and the Andrews Sisters singing in Yiddish to the party. She turns TLC’s “Waterfalls” into a nightclub ballad and the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” into a senior-care burlesque. Her wittingly lowbrow notion of class uncorrupted by her success, she sings every lyric like it’s Cole Porter, or at least Irving Berlin, because in historical context it is. Midler recognizes no disconnect between good-humored sincerity and the idea that camp is a tender feeling. And she knows “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is every bit as eloquent as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” A MINUS


Get On Up: The James Brown Story

(Polydor)

This soundtrack album is mostly for JB loyalists offended by how quickly Universal gave up on its excellent biopic. But in fact only five of its 20 tracks appear in this exact form on the Star Time box, long may it sell, with many of the differences trickier and more substantive than single-versus-LP or even live-versus-studio. I’m especially partial to the inauthentic new piano on “Caldonia” and “Try Me”’s 2014 backing track, and also recommend the protofunk one-two of the post-Star Time versions of “I Got the Feelin’” and “I Can’t Stand Myself.” An excellent one-disc overview. B PLUS


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Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter at @rxgau.
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