As audiences for traditional classical concerts continue to decline and our symphony orchestras are forced to get creative to stay viable, the trend of pop and rock acts performing with “full orchestra,” usually on stage but sometimes on recordings as well, continues to draw highly mixed results.
Here in Washington, we’ve seen acts such as the Indigo Girls, Ledisi and Babyface perform with the NSO Pops in recent months. These outings are rarely unpleasant — they just tend to highlight the inherent differences of orchestral and pop/rock music.
Even an artist whose catalogue you’d think would be a little better suited to the idea such as that of Diana Ross, who performed with the NSO Pops in Dec. 2016, never proves as transcendent in actuality as in theory. Melissa Etheridge is coming in 2018. I mean, yeah, she’s great, but doesn’t the fact that anybody would think to pair up Etheridge and an orchestra prove we’ve jumped some kind of heretofore unimagined cultural shark?
The string players end up sawing away for long periods while the horns punctuate phrases here and there and take many of the same solos that were present in the original arrangements. One imagines the NSO players are practically climbing the walls in boredom while a core pop/rock ensemble in the center does all the heavy lifting. Rarely have I heard anyone — Mika’s “No Place in Heaven (Special Edition)” with the Montreal Symphony is a delicious exception — do anything terribly interesting in these endeavors.
The new album “A Brand New Me: Aretha Franklin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” is the same idea — it sounds like fun on paper but the results amount to little more than a glorified remastering. You walk away with (almost) the same feeling you had after watching Gus Van Sant’s (almost) shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho.” What was the point?
The brainchild of producers Nick Patrick and Don Reedman, the team behind a similar series of albums on Elvis Presley (Franklin was not involved in any contemporary sense), “Brand New Me” takes Franklin’s vintage classic recordings on Atlantic and augments them with new orchestrations, backing vocals and rhythm tracks. The release is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Franklin’s classic “Respect.”
The main problems are two-fold: one, Franklin’s isolated period vocals of the era were lost in a fire decades ago so there was no way (even with today’s technology — go figure) to totally separate her vocals from the original recordings. The best they could do was boost mix levels but the result, while not exactly muddy, majorly limits the possibilities. Unlike, for example, the surprisingly delightful Motown Remixed albums from 2005 and 2007, the arrangers here were severely limited by the overall sonic architecture of Franklin’s original tracks.
Even in areas where they could have cut loose a bit more — like extended intros or instrumental solos — they opt for little more than bland string noodling for a few measures before the original rhythm arrangements kick in and you barely notice the symphony once Franklin starts cooking. Part of that, sure, is just because Franklin’s classic vocals really are that great. When she’s in the room, it’s hard to focus on anything but her. Yet the arrangements are so lacking in imagination, it’s pitiful.
These types always give the same stock answers when pressed. “Oh, we wanted to stay true to the original flavor of the arrangements” and to mess with a classic too much is akin to sonic sacrilege. That’s a cop out, though. If you’re too deferential you end up robbing fans of any sense of a new experience and that’s exactly what the team here has done.
Oh sure, classic cuts like “Don’t Play That Song,” “Natural Woman” and “I Say a Little Prayer” go down as easy and as thrilling as they ever did and have just a touch more fizz here and there. But after about 30 seconds you almost forget you’re listening to anything other than the originals. “Think” has the new intro that segues most effectively into the song. And the strings swell nicely and have a few brief passages that are different from the original arrangements on “Oh Me Oh My” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” but the end result overall is disappointing.
Yeah, it could have backfired but I wish they’d have stuck their necks out and tried something a little more brazen and creative. The only good thing I can say is that, while a little covers heavy (although so was Aretha’s Atlantic output in fairness), they chose their candidates fairly well and sequenced them nicely.