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.
Chapter Two (1970)
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Reverend Lee A+
This song begins with an entertaining monolog. ( “This is a song about a very big, black, strong, sexy southern Baptist minister who thinks that he’s got his program all together until he runs up against a lady who shows him that he ain’t got it all together. His name is Rev. Doctor Lee.” ) Lyrically and musically, it’s the same sort of thing as Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” I might not like this song as much as Springfield’s classic, but it’s not too far behind. The gospel-tinged melody is catchy, the groove infectious enough to get my toe tapping, and it’s punctuated nicely by a hot horn section. And then Flack’s deliciously seductive vocals tower over all of this, and she makes it all seem so effortless.
Do What You Gotta Do B+
This is a Jimmy Webb cover. It’s a pretty ballad, although its melody isn’t among the more memorable ones under Webb’s belt. Nevertheless Flack, who is establishing herself as the premiere singer of sad ballads, soars through this one beautifully, and it’s difficult for me to not want to go on the flight with her.
Just Like a Woman A
Do I like this more than Bob Dylan’s crusty and croaky original? Not by a long shot. But if this wasn’t such a famous song, I wouldn’t have even figured Bob Dylan wrote it. Roberta Flack manages to turn this into a Roberta Flack song, as she soars gracefully and mournfully over hushed instrumentation. The source material is great, of course, so that only benefits her.
Let it Be Me A
Another heavy, hushed, mournful ballad, and this time it’s a song that was very well-played. The Everly Brothers of course popularized it originally in 1960, but pretty much everybody recorded a cover of it, from Elvis to Glen Campbell, Sonny & Cher, Tom Jones and even Leonard Nimoy. But Flack’s version is as good, or better, than any of them. Except, of course, for Nimoy’s version.
Gone Away B+
This is another mournful ballad, but this one utilizes a sweeping string and horn section, even culminating to a heavy chorus even with a few licks of electric guitar snuck in. It makes a good listen, even if it’s not one of the major songs I remember from the album.
Until It’s Time for You To Go A-
Yep, another slow and mournful ballad, but this Buffy Ste-Marie cover is such a beautiful song that I can happily gobble up another one of these. If the instrumentation were just a tad waterier, Scott Walker could have recorded this, and it would have sounded at home in one of his ‘Big 4’ albums.
The Impossible Dream B
The Man of La Mancha could be my favorite Broadway show, and this is a cover of the musical’s flagship number. But I expect this song to sound more upbeat than it is…and by this point in the album anyway, I get so tired of these slow, mournful tunes. I will say that Flack’s vocal performance—particularly as it culminates—is utterly phenomenal.
Business Goes on as Usual C+
By ‘business’ if you mean another slow, mournful ballad, then yep. This one has a quiet, plodding militaristic beat to remind you that your depression hasn’t fully set in yet. By far, this song has the album’s worst instrumentation—instrumented intermittently with some dark wobbly notes from a rhythm guitar and a cello so depressing that it would horrify attendees at a funeral. Ugh… Probably most frustratingly, the first four sung notes of the song remind me of Gethesemane (I Only Want to Say)” from Jesus Christ Superstar. And all it makes me think of is how awesome it would have been if Flack covered that song instead.
Quiet Fire (1971)
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Go up Moses A
What an interesting song. I can’t say I’ve heard anything else like it. It is characterized mainly by a subdued but heavily textured and driving funk rhythm, and there’s a lowdown, baritone gospel choir repeatedly singing Go up, Moses, you been down too long / Go up, Moses, sing your freedom song. Flack of course provides lead vocals, but she doesn’t so much sing a melody as much as she provides stylized vocal outbursts amidst the groove. And of course, it’s great to listen to. For its uniqueness, I give it its due, even as much as I probably would have preferred something with a lead melody. It’s a great way to open the album, anyway.
Bridge Over Troubled Water A-
In one sense this cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic is a lot more minimalist than the original, since all Flack does in terms of orchestration is provide a quietly played piano, with a subtle violin and a cello that I barely notice and some ‘aaahs’ from a distant choir that bleeds in the background. At the same time, this version is far more sprawling than the original, since it’s slower, rendering it nearly three minutes longer that the original, and Flack clearly gives it all she’s got in her vocal performance, and she’s got a lot. As this song begins, I tend to want to shrug it off, but by the time it’s over, I get wide-eyed.
Sunday and Sister Jones B+
This is a slow song featuring another one of Flack’s brilliantly expressive vocal performances, and the bluesy undertones keeps it tangy. I wouldn’t say the song blows me out of the water in any particular sense, but it’s very well put together, and the dark subject matter helps keep an ominous atmosphere. Although I wish there were more detail. The song is about “Rev. Jones” who dies and “Sister Jones” grieves so much that she also dies. What is never mentions is why any of this happens. I suppose we can guess?
See You Then A
Flack’s previous album was full of slow songs like this, but none of those songs quite hit me squarely in the chest like this one does. The melody is wonderful, and those bittersweet lyrics about a lost love are emotive. (This is a Jimmy Webb composition, and she also sang one of his songs in her previous album, but it wasn’t as nice as this one.) This song proves what we’ve always known: When Flack has great material to sing, her vocal performance is just going to bring it home. And it’s wonderful here. Great song.
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow B
This is exactly like her earlier cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in that she took a very well-known song and made it quite slow and sprawling. Yes, Flack’s vocal performance is as wonderful, but it doesn’t quite smack me around six ways from Sunday like she did then. (This song was originally by The Shirelles in 1960, but it was also done more recently by the composer, Carole King, in 1971 in a similar fashion.) It’s a great source material, but I don’t think Flack adds all that much to it.
To Love Somebody A-
This is also a well-known song that Flack renders long and slow. This one happens to be a song I like very much and have listened to many times by The Bee Gees. But this one is rendered as a slow, heavy gospel number and I didn’t even recognize she was singing the Bee Gees song until I caught the lyrics in the chorus. It sounds nothing like the source material. The instrumentation is busier than either “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with an acidic organ and a quiet electric guitar interchanging noodles throughout. And as this nearly seven-minute rendition reaches its end, the slow groove picks up steam ever so slightly, ushered with a choir that subtly grows more and more powerful.
Let Them Talk B
As much as I seem to keep reiterating this, slow, sprawling songs are Flack’s strength, but I get weary of them after a little while, and that weariness will manifest itself before the album runs out if they’re not careful. I think Flack’s vocal performance is amazing here in particular. (I mean, if that long note she does at the end doesn’t absolutely floor you, then why do you live?) I give the song its due for that for sure, but I don’t find the vocal melody here very memorable, and there’s nothing about the instrumentation that I can latch onto either.
Sweet Bitter Love B
You would likely guess from the song title, we’re listening to another slow, sad love ballad. Just to continue to state the most obvious thing: Flack’s highly expressive vocal performance is as good as it’s going to get on songs like this. There are a lot of great singing voices on the planet, but there’s hardly anyone else out there who can soar like Flack can on this song. Except for maybe the original singer of this song, Aretha Franklin. (Comparing the songs, it becomes so obvious how crystal-clear Flack’s vocals are.) I like the original version by Franklin; the melody is OK (I’m not in love with it), but the original also didn’t overstay its welcome. This version is more than twice as long, and I just don’t think there was enough here to warrant extending it so long. It begins as so many songs here do, Flack singing expressively to a minimalist piano, and then some subtle embellishments are occasionally brought in.
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (1972)
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I (Who Have Nothing) B
Oh no. Flack’s previous three studio albums started with an exciting track. This album starts with a very slow ballad, which is something I would have expected to hear buried deep down in her previous albums. Is this happening already? She duets with Donny Hathaway throughout this record, who is a fine singer, but he isn’t as distinctive as Flack. This is a slowed-down cover of the Ben E. King song, which was a rather glorious orchestral-pop song from the early ‘60s. This is a sterilized early ‘70s version. It’s a decent tune, for sure, but it just doesn’t rustle my feathers.
You’ve Got a Friend B+
This cover of Carole King’s classic managed to be released on the same day as James Taylor’s #1 version, and it’s an excellent song for sure. I just don’t care much for that soft, electric piano they use to orchestrate this song. I don’t know what it is about that instrument, but it sometimes just wants to suck the lifeblood out of everything within a 10-foot radius. I also don’t understand why they needed to make this a duet. It like they’re both competing to be my friend.
Baby I Love You C+
We get a number here with a drum beat and bass-line, which is nice, although it comes off like some kind of cutesy country/western song, which is a far cry away from its origins as a great R&B song from Aretha Franklin. The melody is nice, and the vocals are as good as they should be, but this one was a misfire.
Be Real Black for Me C
Oh my goodness, they wrote an original song. Flack shares songwriting credit with Hathaway and Charles Mann. It’s a slow, bedroom romance song that’s obviously between two black people. So for once, it seems like these two should be duetting, although I don’t particularly care to imagine Flack and Hathaway having romances together. (“Your hair, soft and crinkly / Your body, strong and stately / You don’t have to search and roam / ‘Cause I got your love at home”) Groan.
You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ C-
Oh wow, what ever did they do to this song? The original by the Righteous Brothers is among the finest songs to come out of the ‘60s, and was covered so well by a multitude of artists, such as Dione Warwick, Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood, Hall & Oates, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, and Barry Manilow that I wonder what prompted this version, which is so lumbering, that when they finally get to that huge chorus it comes off as flat. (Actually, strike Barry Manilow. His version sucked.) The chorus, which should simulate what it’s like to look over a mountaintop for the first time, is instead reduced to being in a painfully slow-moving tractor and getting to the top of a speed bump. Of course, the melody is still pretty great, but it didn’t need to be dragged out to more than six minutes. And no, I’m not impressed enough with Flack’s and Hathaway’s vocal gymnastics to truly warrant that.
For All We Know B+
This is a very, very, very slow piano ballad that was originally written in 1934 but since covered by a large array of singers. Hathaway takes the lead vocals throughout this (no Flack at all, except I presume she is still playing the piano), and of course he’s slow and soulfully. The song doesn’t really catch fire until a brief moment during an orchestral crescendo in the final third of the song. I also have to congratulate these guys for replacing the soft, electric pianos with a real piano.
Where is the Love A-
Just because I like being inconsistent, this song predominantly features a soft electric piano and it seems so ’70s that all I can think of is this being the theme song to a TV show. And yet, I like it. It was mixed nicely in such a way that it works well with its cutesy melody. Also, for once, Flack and Hathaway seem to duet constructively with each other, even though they just spend much of this song just singing the song title at each other. But they’re asking a good question: Where is the love, anyway? Best thing of all about this song is that it’s short ‘n’ sweet, running at under three minutes.
When Love Has Grown B
I suppose they ended up finding the love, but it has grown, and things just aren’t cute after they’ve grown. This is a fairly nice love song, with an OK melody and vocal performances fine as always from the two singers. There is a subdued electric guitar (so quiet in the mix that it’s barely noticed) and a light drum beat playing a rhythm, and there’s a somewhat nice orchestral up-swell in the middle. I mean, it still sounds like it belongs in some kind of soap opera, but it wouldn’t be a bad moment in such a soap opera.
Come Ye Disconsolate B
This is a slow gospel tune, which I enjoy hearing, particularly from two singers who do great with the style. They’re both singing at full force, as a real piano and an acidic organ (that is mixed too far in the background) play on. The song itself is fine, even though it comes off as though it’s an extended intro that goes on for nearly five minutes. I guess I’ll have to wait for Hadrian to finish his wall before we get to the rollicking part with the upbeat gospel choir and quick rhythms.
This one has Flack given sole songwriting credit, and it is (true to the title) a moody instrumental piece that goes on for seven minutes. While is would seem like it should be an invitation for all of us to take a nap, I find it to be quite good for what it is, as she comes out with some interesting melodic themes throughout the piece, and I appreciate the quiet, subtle instrumentation style. But I do grow wearisome of it, even as she elegantly evolves her piano textures. Overall, it’s a respectable piece, but it’s not one I’ll probably go out of my way to listen to again.