Aretha Franklin, perhaps the most gifted singer of her generation, had been out of the pop Top 10 for 11 years, but she has returned a conqueror with "Freeway of Love." As she moves from the sultry verse into the chorus, her voice climbs up and up with accelerating power. When she exclaims, "We're goin' ridin' on the freeway of love!" her voice shifts into fifth gear and cruises with the sweet freedom of release.
It doesn't matter whether one hears that release as musical, sexual, emotional or automotive, for in Franklin's instinctive performance, it's all one and the same. By the end of the song, she has thrown the lead sheet away and her voice weaves in and out of the song's right lane as she drag-races Clarence Clemons' tenor sax to the finish line.
"Who's Zoomin' Who" (Arista AL8-8286) is an unlikely candidate for Franklin's triumphant comeback album. Her 1982 collaboration with Luther Vandross, "Jump to It," was overall a better, more consistent album, but it lacked a knockout single like "Freeway of Love." "Who's Zoomin' Who" is a bizarre grab bag of duets, guest solos, genre exercises and remakes, largely produced and written by the heretofore undistinguished soul journeyman Narada Michael Walden.
Walden and Jeffrey Cohen wrote three tunes. Despite a duet vocal by Peter Wolf and a guitar solo by Carlos Santana, "Push" sounds forced and overdone compared with the natural easiness of "Freeway of Love." "Ain't Nobody Ever Loved You" is Lionel Richie-styled Caribbean fluff that's forgettable even before it's over.
Walden and Preston Glass wrote "Until You Say You Love Me," loosely based on the Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket." It's a compelling lovers' monologue that Franklin makes the most of by extending her vocal lines past the melody. Walden and Glass joined Franklin to write the album's title tune, which has an "experienced" woman beating a sidewalk Don Juan at his own game. The singer gives it enough bouncy sass to make it a hit single.
"Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," Franklin's duet with Annie Lennox, suffers from Lennox's hackneyed lyrics, but Dave Stewart's sympathetic production allows the two singers to validate the song's premise by the sheer power of their performance.
The album's two best songs, though, are those produced by Franklin herself with Luther Vandross' band. "Integrity" is a finger-wagging, dramatic monologue to a dishonest man. Franklin's heartfelt lyrics are perfectly set to a light funk push, and her understated delivery emphasizes the sincere advice over the vengeful anger. Van McCoy's "Sweet Bitter Love," which Franklin recorded in 1965 for Columbia, is redone here with one of her finest performances ever. She broods on the bittersweet memories of a lost love with intensely melancholy phrases that she seems to release only with great reluctance.
Franklin's career at Columbia from 1960 through 1965 was a long string of inappropriate vehicles and resulting disappointments. But even among the downright embarrassments, where Franklin seems to be sleepwalking, are hints of the future, songs where the singer displays her potential even if she doesn't fulfil it.
Most of those isolated gems were gathered on the 1981 anthology "The Legendary Queen of Soul"; the rest are presented on the new anthology, "Aretha Sings the Blues," (Columbia FC 40105). These are not the blues according to Bessie Smith or Big Mama Thornton but according to Dinah Washington or Nancy Wilson. The smooth nightclub arrangements preclude the primal explosions of the subsequent Atlantic recordings, but this is obviously a talented singer whose gorgeous tone gives key phrases a delicious little twist.
Jennifer Holliday's big, gospel-trained voice inevitably invites comparison to Franklin. After three stage performances ("Your Arms Too Short to Box With God," "Dreamgirls" and "Sing, Mahalia, Sing") and the 1983 Maurice White-produced album, "Feel My Soul," Holliday has finally released her second pop album, "Say You Love Me" (Geffen GHS 24073). Unfortunately, her very special voice is largely wasted on very ordinary songs that anyone could sing, if anyone really wanted to.
Too much of the album is given over to songs whose melodies and rhythms are every bit as indistinct and bland as lines like "My dreams will never die" or "I know what's real and we got each other." One doesn't expect much from the Tin Pan Valley hacks who dominate this album, but even "You're the One," the contribution written and produced by Michael Jackson, nods off in syrupy sentiment.
The up-tempo dance tunes are for the most part second-rate Hall and Oates imitations; Holliday's attempt at rap on "What Kind of Love Is This?" is especially embarrassing. "I Rest My Case," by Bruce Roberts and Andy Goldmark, does cut loose impressively; even better is Arthur Baker's "No Frills Love," in which the manic call-and-response vocals escalate as relentlessly as the synthesized dance rhythms.
The two best songs, though, are the two produced by Tommy LiPuma, who pursues the novel idea of fitting the arrangements around Holliday's voice instead of trying to tailor her voice to fit the arrangements. Duke Ellington's sacred hymn "Come Sunday" is simmered by low-pitched brass, which leaves room for the singer to handle each phrase with the care and reverence it deserves.
D.L. Rogers' gospel soul tune "Say You Love Me" begins with seductive restraint and builds effortlessly through an inviting sing-along chorus into a stunning climax of uninhibited wailing. If Holliday could put together an album of performances like this, she might deserve the Franklin comparisons.