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Up South Soundtrack
Album recs from OA staff and contributors
By Oxford American
Jonny Greenwood’s Spencer soundtrack breaks from the self-aggrandizing sweep of royal dramas, enlisting free jazz players to interpret the British composer’s classical score. Greenwood has long referenced Sun Ra as a guide and sonic adventurer, and in accessing the self-contained institution of the British monarchy, the Radiohead polymath relies on Ra’s searching bravura. The lineage is evident in songs like “Delusion / Miracle,” which unfurl with the “strange strings” of a Sun Ra missive, percussive echoes filling out grand halls. The Spencer soundtrack bridges time and space, reaches out to other worlds, and in the process, draws us closer to Sun Ra’s astral orbit.
—Noah Taylor Britton
Tina Turns the Country On!
Tina Turner’s 1984 blockbuster Private Dancer is an obvious favorite, but in the interest of bringing attention to a less well-known recording in Turner’s catalog, I recommend seeking out Tina Turns the Country On!, her first solo outing. Here, Turner brings her signature fire and power to songs written by Hank Snow, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, and James Taylor, wrapping her vocals around the country-edged arrangements and infusing the songs with a mix of strength, vulnerability, and tenderness. By turning the country on, Turner shares a different side of her inimitable voice.
Number one r&b albums in 1976 included I Want You by Marvin Gaye, Wake Up Everybody by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder. Sparkle became part of that esteemed group in the late summer. It was Aretha Franklin’s twenty-fourth LP and her final hit for Atlantic. Curtis Mayfield, who’d been born in Chicago two months after Franklin was born in Memphis, produced the recordings and wrote the lyrics to soundtrack the film which Warner Brothers released the same year. Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, and Dwan Smith played a Supremes-like girl group coming up in Harlem in the late ’50s and ’60s. Amid elaborately hued outfits, glorious street scenes, dance numbers, and a host of unsavory characters, Sparkle is ultimately a love story. I heard for many years that it was Whitney Houston’s favorite film; Houston eventually executive produced and co-starred in its 2012 remake.
The cast sings the songs in both the remake and the original film. But reportedly, Mayfield, in need of a hit, wanted an experienced singer to cut them in the studio. He initially recruited Carolyn Franklin, Aretha’s baby sister, and I wonder what her versions would have sounded like. Carolyn’s voice is softer than her sister’s and had a grainy edge I have come to love. Still, Sparkle is the Aretha album I turn to most often. I can play it from start to finish—while loading the dishwasher or having a dinner party. It’s a singular, soulful statement. The up tempos are jubilant, the grooves are deep, sincere, fleshy, sensual, helped in large part by background vocals from the Kitty Haywood Singers. David Ritz called it Franklin’s “most impassioned secular singing.” In 1992, En Vogue covered its second track, “Something He Can Feel,” and I think that song is the ultimate soul ballad. In Ritz’s words, Sparkle is about “a young woman in love with life,” and the record shimmers, sounds like joyous, exuberant music making.
—Danielle A. Jackson
To read Mahon’s feature story on Turner, and for more on the Franklin sisters by Zandria F. Robinson and Tarisai Ngangura, pre-order the Up South Music Issue today. Select the Tina or Aretha cover at checkout!