ARETHA FRANKLIN I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (4 Men With Beards)

Breathed back onto vinylite by the charmingly named new San Francisco label 4 Men With Beards (I have no idea whether their moniker is a homage to the Mushroom track "For Men With Beards" or derived from the fact that the company is literally staffed by four bearded men), Lady Soul's Atlantic debut arrives on/with, according to the sticker, "180 gram HQ vinyl, audiophile remastering from original master tapes, original artwork and new exclusive and detailed liner notes by 60's music historian Alec Palao". All of which is fabulous stuff, royal treatment which "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You" fully merits.

Rescued from years of inappropriate material and neglect at Columbia, Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler matched Franklin with the Muscle Shoals studio band and made her the de facto leader of the group, driving the sessions with her Ray Charles-styled piano playing. The result? Otis Redding's "Respect", shredded to within an inch of its life before undergoing some serious and irreversible gender reassignment (said the composer, "I lost my song", and it's instructive to listen to the original version, at home on "Otis Blue", and note how polite and enfeebled it sounds in comparison); "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man", illuminated from within by a quiet gospel beauty; that title track, on which Aretha's vocals fragment around the beat and coalesce again into a series of yelps and moans. The self-penned "Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream" marks out a perfect understanding of Bacharach-style pop perfection, whilst "Save Me" plays similar tricks with Van's "Gloria". Add a sprinkling of Sam Cooke standards ("Good Times", "A Change Is Gonna Come") and a few numbers by band member King Curtis, and the result is the kind of dynamite-primed masterpiece that holds up against just about any other classic of the soul genre you could name.

As to the quality of 4 Men With Beard's reissue, the packaging is exemplary and it sounds great, within the limitations of the rather obviously gritty master tapes used.

ARETHA FRANKLIN Lady Soul (4 Men With Beards)

Lady Soul is Aretha Franklins third Atlantic album, originally released in 1968. Musically, its a phenomenon, Franklin drawing material from all over the pop map. She covers songs by, amongst others, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Carole King, Ray Charles and The Young Rascals. Whilst by rights the result should sound like some lumpen, ill-considered mix tape, her tremendous, but hardly histrionic, vocal performance blends and binds everything together. Of course, its no disadvantage that she has the likes of Bobby Womack, Joe South, Eric Clapton and King Curtis playing in her band. Money Wont Change You works itself up into a mighty sweat, People Get Ready is soaked in gospel pathos and Groovin a rare, laidback moment.

4 Men With Beards 180 gram vinyl reissue is, well, to their usual standards. Maybe they used the cleanest source available to them; perhaps the distorted, cluttered sound is endemic in the master tapes. For whatever reason, I find this version of Lady Soul to be eardrum-itchingly harsh, hardly the warm stew of Southern soul that might be expected.