THE ALBUM Aretha Franklin - Aretha (Arista, AL 9538); THE SHOW Saturday at 8 at Constitution Hall.

Hard times, indeed.

But even under the worst of circumstances, Aretha Franklin reminds her audience that titles are not bestowed lightly in the vast pop kingdom.

"Aretha" marks her umpteenth label jump (this time to Arista) and another giant leap away from gospel/soul toward mainstream pop. It's doubtful whether anyone could provide the combination of creative freedom and control that helped Jerry Wexler turn her into a one-woman hit machine during the late '60s; Arif Mardin and Chuck Jackson certainly don't fill the bill. But nothing can totally obliterate the melismatic magic that is Aretha, and every now and then it shines through this album's slick surface.

It's tricky, though. In the intro to the Michael McDonald/Kenny Loggins tuen "What a Food Believes," Franklin gives every indication that what follows will be a gospel-tinged, octave-jumping interpretation of a song that's already grown stale from too much airplay. It doesn't happen. Keyboards jump in to make the inevitable (albeit funky) concession to Doobie-esque plunky-plunk-plunk, and other than swapping a few pronouns, she doesn't touch the piece.

Similar problems are encountered on "Come to Me" and "Love Me Forever," wherein Franklin sounds genuinely bored. Otis Redding's "Can't Turn You Loose" lights a fire under her, however, as Redding's music always did. And given the fast pace and saucy lyrics of "Whatever It Is," even Franklin can't hold herself back on this one.

The centerpiece of the album is Franklin's own "School Days" -- pretty smarmy stuff, all in all. But there's something touching about the way she insists on sharing her most intimate and cherished memories, and the honest delivery of the song almost makes the thick studio veneer forgivable. Remember those big hoop skirts and peticoats That we wore in the summer Guess that's what I wore the most And remember when you'd sit They'd fly up in the air And you'd have to hold them down While sitting in your chair

There's no "Chain of Fools" on this album, no "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)." What there is is the blessed assurance that Franklin's voice, if not her choice of material, is solid as ever, and the hope that in time the new label might help bring back the Aretha of old.