First Take (1969)
Album Score: 12/15
I, along with what I assume is everyone else on the planet, were convinced that Roberta Flack's discography was nothing more but “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and its clones repeated over and over again. No, we didn't bother to actually listen to her albums. That is, until now. We only listened to that single and imagined that everything else on her dozen or so albums were exactly like it—oozing with those same sort of soft, sentimental tones. Yes, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” is undeniably great, but one only ever needs to hear it once (per day). Therefore there must be no reason to check out anything else Ms. Flack has ever released...
But digging into this a little more deeply, it turns out, she released a few albums before that mega-hit started gracing America's morning commute. Here in her debut album, she introduces herself as a soulful interpreter of other peoples' work. She was much like Nina Simone, except with a soaring voice that's clear as crystal, and she isn't that much into jazz. Although she is a little bit into jazz. Also, this album is fantastic!
So what is good about it, then? In a short answer: So much!!!!!!! In a longer answer: It's not perfect, but these songs, as a whole, are excellent, and the instrumentation and production quality are state-of-the-art (for the time). The singing of course is the reason any of us are here in the first place, since that is what Roberta Flack is known for. Just listen to any one of these songs to get an idea of the kind of singer she was; she had an extremely powerful voice but knew how to maximize its effect. That is, she spends most of the time singing in a subdued and dramatic manner, while only spending a minimal amount of time truly belting it. A lesser artist with her talents would've spent this entire time trying to bludgeon us over the heads with her voice. Ow, my head!
One of my favorite moments is surely the heavy but weary R&B opener “Compared to What,” characterized with a low, rumbly double bass and drums that can get the toe tapping. It is accented with heavy brass, and Flack's vocal performance ebbs and flows so naturally. The album closer, “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is the most heart-wrenching thing here, and I can do nothing else as I listen to it but imagine the sad, desperate faces of all the people she is singing about.
My favorite song happens to be the one that is the most uncharacteristic of her, and I'm a little gutted she never ventured into doing anything else like it again: “Angelitos Negros,” a cover of a Latin American folk song. My five years of grade school Spanish is informing me her Spanish-language pronunciation is impeccable. (But I guess I'll have to wait 60 years for George Starostin to get around to reviewing Roberta Flack before I can really know that for sure.) I also like listening to the piano, Spanish guitar, militaristic drums, and the strings, all of which work together to continually evolve textually and emotionally throughout.
The second half of the album contains a song that won her a Grammy for best record in 1972. Even though the album was released in 1969. “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.” Clint Eastwood used the song during an important moment in his film Play Misty for Me. Even though the Grammies should have always given this award to David Bowie, I will have to admit, it is an utterly beautiful song, and it captivates me fully!
In addition to R&B and Latin-folk, this album has a Leonard Cohen cover (“Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye”), a classical ballad (“Our Ages Or Our Hearts,” a spiritual (“I Told Jesus”), and lounge jazz (“Tryin' Times”). The worst thing I can say about the album is particularly about the second half, which contains nothing but heavy ballads. To be sure, they are good ballads, but would it have killed her to throw an upbeat number in there? I mean, as much as I enjoy reflecting upon the most depressing aspects of the human condition, too much of it is just...too much.
Nevertheless, this is a fantastic album that is worth a listen to anyone out there who incorrectly thought Roberta Flack's entire discography was filled with nothing but “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and its clones. Really, who could have thought of something so stupid?
Read the track reviews here!