Soulful Queen Of Roses

"A rose is a rose is a rose," said eccentric writer and U.S.-turned-

Paris resident Gertrude Stein. "A rose is still a rose," said Queen of

Soul and suburban Detroit resident Aretha Franklin. For some

reason

-- I don't know, maybe it's the inimitable voice -- I'm more moved

by

Aretha's words, even if she didn't actually write them

(Lauryn

Hill of the Fugees, one of A Rose is Still a Rose's

producers,

did, but Aretha makes them her own).

Flowers aside, Franklin is in fine form on this, her first album of

new material since 1991.

As I sit gazing at the album cover photo of Aretha, whose long hair

cascades down her back, and listening to the hip-hop-influenced

single, "A Rose is Still a Rose," I

can't help but compare this song to "Respect," "(You Make Me Feel

Like) A Natural Woman" and "Chain of Fools." What I end up

concluding is that the anger and indignation of "Respect" or "Chain

of

Fools" would sound forced or

silly coming from this wise and mature woman, whose new album

is

more mellow than her old stuff but not without hints of regret and

pain.

Aretha offers empathy in "A Rose is Still a Rose" ("Listen dear, I

realize you've been hurt"), but she's not all cozy, maternal

warmth (thank goodness). There's also a slight edge to this song,

derived from ruthless truth-telling. But aside from all that

evocative stuff, this song road-tests well. In fact, when I was

driving through upstate New York and "A Rose is Still a Rose"

came

on the radio, I cranked it up and did the dancin'-in-my-car thing. I

was singing along, and people driving by were looking at me like I

was nuts. One of the best things about the song is the looped, not

really sampled, "What I am is what I am," from the Edie

Brickell and New Bohemians' hit ("What I Am").

While, of course, the Aretha of the 1960s will not return, and while

it would be flip to say that her present songwriters and producers

don't have the magic that, say, Jerry Wexler (one of her producers

from way back when) had, it's also true that Puffy Combs' song,

"Never Gonna Leave You Again," is so bland that I found

myself immediately thinking of other things -- housework, a

telephone call I had to make -- anything but the track blasting from

my stereo. In fact, it was all I could do not to turn it down and get

on with my business. Fake

phone-ringing (Maybe that's why I wanted to return phone calls?)

and

a busy, hip-hop recording grate annoyingly in this slowish love

song.

What was Combs thinking? I mean, kudos to Aretha for working

with

new, fashionable, successful musicians, but Puffy is a drag. (Still,

Puffy aside, most of the time Aretha's voice makes even the

mundane sound extraordinary.) Other songs include: "Here We Go

Again," which has a nice Sister Sledge vibe going on; "Every Li'l

Bit

Hurts," which reminds me of solid, radio-friendly Boyz II Men; and

"I'll Dip" (i.e., dip out), a song about leaving your man that wins the

most intriguing song title award.

While nothing here quite evokes the power or urgency of the

Aretha

of the late '60s, A Rose is Still a Rose proves that the

Queen

of Soul is still holding court.