First Take (1969)
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Compared to What A
Such a great song! (I'm not a paid music reviewer from Rolling Stone Magazine, so I'm allowed to begin song reviews like this.) Compared to a lot of songs, I've not listened to this one that many times—maybe five—but it does get me excited. It starts with a repetitive, rumbling bass-line, accompanied with subdued but frenzied drums, that runs throughout, which gives Flack's deep and powerful vocals the means to rise up majestically. There's a momentous push as the five-minute piece progresses, and there are HUGE brass section accents that smack you around every once in awhile. The song is pretty much perfect. If I were to criticize it for one thing, it would be that it doesn't really have a climax... it just sort of grows and then fades away.
Angelitos Negros A+
Well Roberta Flack would never do a song like this again, and that is a shame! But while we are here, we shall enjoy the moment... This is a seven-minute cover of a Latin folk song, which begins rather subdued with some rumbled strings and light militaristic drums. As the song progresses, some dramatic flares of strings and pangs of Spanish guitar accent the song nicely. The instrumentation is brilliant in such a way that it keeps changing, varying the textures and evolving the atmosphere, such that the seven-minute song doesn't grow dull for one moment. Of course carrying us through all of this is Roberta Flack's adoringly soaring vocals who—based on my limited understanding of the Spanish language (even though my website name is Spanish)—pronounces the Spanish lyrics exceedingly well.
Our Ages Or Our Hearts A-
This is a heavy, classical ballad with some light piano, occasional fits of sweeping strings, and utterly soaring vocals. The instrumentation is classy without being overblown or sappy. The melody is OK. There's nothing special about the lyrics—they're your everyday, rudimentary lovesick stuff about falling in love, specifically with someone older... (“But my darling/What will it be/Our ages or our hearts/Or our hearts”) Normally, I would think this is boring, and it probably is, but I can't help but being captivated by Flack's commanding vocals, who completely owns this.
I Told Jesus A
This, I'm guessing, is a cover of an old spiritual, but by 10 seconds' of effort trying to figure that out for sure isn't coming up with anything. No matter... this starts out rather slow and dreary, but Flack's singing once again gets its grip. Someone with her vocal gifts I'd imagine would be tempted to over-sing this entire thing...but Flack doesn't start over-singing this until it really matters, which is in the last 40 seconds.
Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye A-
This a Leonard Cohen cover and unlike a lot of covers Flack does, her version doesn't eclipse the aesthetic value or popularity of the original. Though it's a great song, and she covers it well. Her version more flourishy than the original...which shouldn't be a surprise...although I don't really think she did anything special with it.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face A
This song won a Grammy award in 1972? Even though this album came out in 1969? I guess it was used in Clint Eastwood's Play Misty For Me in 1971 and therefore rereleased as a single? Whatever. This is an excellent ballad, though; it's heavy, dramatic, and has a tune that burrows its way into my head. Of course, Flack's vocals have such a commanding presence that they manage to be piercing without being overpowering.
Tryin' Times A-
Jazz! This has a dancing bass, jazz piano, and jazz drums doing their jazz things. (Hey... as I said earlier, I don't get paid to write this stuff.) As Flack has being doing so consistently in this album, she her vocals are startling and powerful. While I don't find the melody or lyrics to be memorable at all, I do enjoy listening to this, as I am imagining myself sitting in a nightclub listening to her, as I am sipping a glass of champagne... and slowly getting wasted...
Ballad of the Sad Young Men A
Talking about slowly getting wasted, that is literally what this song is about. A group of lonely men sitting in bars, wandering about the cold streets of town feeling so depressed... For once, I guess, there's a song on this album with lyrics that have me intrigued. (I can do nothing but imagine the people she is singing about.) More than this, the melody is beautiful and the orchestration is subtle but sweeping. She keeps her powerful vocals from letting it rip until its final third—and even then it's only for a few seconds. She knows how to use that voice of hers as a weapon! ...I could imagine Frank Sinatra making a classic out of this in 1955.