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.
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 she also knew how to maximize its effect. That is, she spent 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 our heads with a voice like this.
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.
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? 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.
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Chapter Two (1970)
Album Score: 10/15
We're into Roberta Flack's second album, and I am already getting a little bit of S.S.F. (slow song fatigue). Seven of this album's eight songs can be described exactly like this: slow and mournful. Not that I can blame her for this, as that is simply a recognition of the fact that slow and mournful tunes are Flack's strong suit; she has such a commanding presence over them that it's staggering. After all, why would you want to bury a voice like that under a heavy funk groove?
Keep in mind, we're still a ways away from "Killing Me Softly"--these are ballads, but they don't have the candy coated production, soft pianos, or effects-heavy overdubs (or overdubs at all for that matter). This album was played live in the studio for all I know, even though the orchestration (which include full horn and string arrangements) is hardly skimpy.
While I can't give this album too many points for diversity, at least these songs are quality. Some even staggeringly so--for instance her rendition of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." As you might imagine, it's cleaned up and sentimental and nothing like the crusty and creaky original, but I almost forget the original when I'm listening to it. Flack was so good at turning it into one of her heavy, contemplative ballads that I might not have even guessed Dylan wrote the original (if it wasn't so famous). The slow stuff might start to get wearisome by the time the sixth track comes around, but that is a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Until It's Time for You to Go," which is such a beautiful tune that I don't complain much.
The one non-slow song also happens to be the opener, "Reverend Lee." When I first listened to it, I immediately thought it was a derivative of Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man." Except sorta reversed, since it's the preacher this time who is seduced. And how could he be expected to resist, when the seductress is Flack herself, whose vocal performance is so utterly salacious that I find myself blushing as I listen to it? That is such an explosive opener, and Flack seems to have so much fun with it, that I regret that there isn't anything else here remotely like it.
I would have cut the album's final two songs and replaced them with something you can actually move to, even if it would have to be something boringly obvious like covers of "Come Together" or "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." While her vocal performance in "The Impossible Dream" is staggering, particularly at the end, I expect that song to be instrumented far more grandiosely than it is here, which is funereal. And then "Business Goes On As Usual" is so bleak and depressing that people at an actual funeral would tell that song it needs to lighten up. Look, not everything in this world has to be about misery.
All in all, this album is for people who listened to Flack's debut album and have a yearning more. While the lack of song diversity is unfortunate, the overall quality of the songs is nonetheless high enough for me to give this a mild recommendation.
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Quiet Fire (1971)
Album Score: 11/15
Roberta Flack's third album is similar in quality and likeness to her second in that it's dominated heavily by sprawling ballads. It's slightly improved this time around, for my money, because the song selection is improved, and I seem to last a while longer before it all starts to tire me. (In other words, this album is exactly like her last one, except somewhat less boring.)
Oh, that voice! That'll be the only reason anyone puts on this album. We even get an opportunity here to directly compare it to that of a similar vocal powerhouse, Aretha Franklin, as she covers "Sweet Bitter Love." Flack surely could expressively belt it as well as Franklin could, except Flack's voice is crystal clear as a mountain lake.
Just like her previous record, this opens with the most interesting song of the bunch--this time a surprisingly artsy riff on gospel music that's driven by a heavy but subdued funk rhythm while a baritone gospel choir sings Go up, Moses, you been down too long / Go up, Moses, sing your freedom song. Flack doesn't sing a melody so much as she belts out stylized, expressive outbursts. I perhaps found the opening track of her previous album to be more enjoyable, since that one had more of a concrete melody, but this is undoubtedly the more intriguing song.
I also enjoy her take on the Simon & Garfunkel classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water," even though it's sprawling and minimalist, and the only instruments provided are quiet chords from a piano, a barely noticeable violin and cello, and a distant children's choir that bleeds in the background. But Flack's vocal performance absolutely floors me, particularly towards the end, right when I start thinking to myself, "Why does this song last longer than seven minutes?" Perhaps the most surprising song she gives similar treatment to is a cover of The Bee Gee's "To Love Somebody." Despite knowing the source material pretty well, it took me a minute or so the first time hearing it before I finally said to myself "Is she singing The Bee Gees?" Much more recognizable is her take on Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," which is performed in roughly the same manner as King did on Tapestry.
For my money, one of the major highlights of the album is a gorgeous ballad penned by Jimmy Webb, "See You Then." As much as I can appreciate sprawling, seven-minute covers of popular songs, it's nice to hear a plain, simple, four-minute ballad with a melody strong enough to linger in my mind for a day or two, or longer.
It isn't really until I reach the penultimate track that I've finally grown weary of the fact that the majority of these songs are performed in such similar ways. However, taken individually, every song here is presented nicely, and of course have the benefit of being performed by one of the finest singers who ever walked the planet. Overall, I would say this is more than a decent record, and I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates a masterful singer of ballads.
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Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (1972)
Album Score: 8/15
Released by Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
Uh oh, she is doing duets albums now. Who is Donny Hathaway? He was a soul singer who was signed to the same label that Flack was signed to, but he had somewhat more commercial success at the time. Thus, in an effort to propel Flack's commercial appeal, the label decided to have the two do a duet album. Also, this is a soft-pop album through and through, so anything funky or R&B oriented that may have been bubbling to the surface in her previous albums have all but been extinguished. To some extent, this worked out in their favor, since their cover of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" managed to hit #29 on the charts, which the highest position one of her songs peaked at the time. (The song was released as a single in 1971, strangely enough, on the exact same day James Taylor released his #1 version.) However, it turned out that Flack wouldn't be a chart-nobody for much longer, as a single from her 1969 debut, "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face," would be rereleased soon and hit #1. So no-hit Roberta Flack wouldn't be no-hit Roberta Flack for much longer.
But I'm not particularly wild about this duets album. Flack and Hathaway sound perfectly fine together, but they don't seem to enjoy a great range of material to work with, nor do so many of these songs scream to me "This needs to be a duet!" Take "You've Got a Friend," for instance. Is it Flack or Hathaway, exactly, who wants to be my friend? If the answer is both of them, isn't a little bit peculiar they would be compelled to tell me so at the same time, as their voices are synchronized? Are they trying to draw me into a menage trois? (OK, I know it's just a song.)
The moment in this album that works the most for me is "Where is the Love," which consists predominantly of Flack and Hathaway singing the song title at one another. The reason I like that song, however, is because it has a nice melody, and the song production is quite solid. That is even though it comes across as sounding very generic for the '70s. I mean, mute the intro to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and play that song instead. Does it not seem to fit? But just like so many television theme songs from the '70s, that one is catchy. Unlike many of these other songs, it also doesn't overstay its welcome, at under three minutes.
The bulk of this material consists mainly of passable but forgettable romantic ballads. Though I scratch my head why they decided to cover Aretha Franklin's classic "Baby I Love You" as though it were a country/western song. I'm not even sure that was really their intention--I am so confused by it. I also might end up getting some flak for dismissing Flack's version of "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling," but there was no good reason that classic from the 1960s needed to be slowed down so much and extended beyond six minutes. I know Flack hadn't been exactly a stranger to doing such things to '60s songs, but they were hit or miss as it was, and that time they'd gone too far.
There are a couple originals in here. One I like, the other not so much. The one I like is a seven-minute instrumental composed solely by Flack. To be sure, it develops a little too slowly for my tastes, but it is nonetheless an elegant piece with some interesting melodic themes strewn in and some nice texture development throughout. It would make more sense for that piece to appear on a movie soundtrack than as opposed to the end of a soft-rock record. But it wasn't like including the song here was going to spoil the record at all. The other original is "Be Real Black for Me," which for an erotic bedroom song, is quite dull. It's been awhile since I've run across something that's made me want to groan as much as that song. So, in the end, there really isn't much in this album for me to get excited about. Other than I suppose the realization that I'll be getting to hear "Killing Me Softly" pretty soon.
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Killing Me Softly (1973)
Album Score: 12/15
This album has a couple of such killer pop songs that it earns its place in the hall of the greats despite the six other songs are, for all intents and purposes, forgettable. What's more, these two great songs ("Killing Me Softly With His Song" and "Jesse") are Tracks #1 and #2 respectively. Which means the rest of the album is such a letdown in comparison.
But let's concentrate on the two killer songs first. These, along with "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," practically defined Roberta Flack in pop culture. Songs that are incredibly sad but beautiful. The kinds of songs that make melancholy seem like an OK place to stay sometimes. And of course Flack's perfect vocal delivery is remarkable--crystal clear but soulful and resonant. Sad but approachable. Like she's inviting us to stand with her underneath an umbrella where she can sing for all of us.
"Jesse" is a Janis Ian cover. Ian was popular enough at the time that I doubt it came as a surprise to anyone regarding the origin of Flack's more commercially successful version. But "Killing Me Softly" is also a cover--co-written and originally performed a year earlier by folk singer Lori Lieberman. (Her original version is available to hear on YouTube. Go listen to it.) The song has one of those melodies that I can hear only once, and it haunts me for ages. "Jesse" is a similar experience. Technically, I'd say "Jesse" is a better song, since I find the lyrics to be far more relatable and written with such vivid imagery that they alone constitute an incredible work of art. The metaphor-laden "Killing Me Softly" seems empty in comparison. But I can't deny it, either. However indescribable or unlikely, there's magic to "Killing Me Softly." Lyrics and everything.
The tasteful albeit middle-of-the-road instrumentation served those two songs well. Polished but not bombastic so as to overpower Flack's soulful vocals and crystal-clear dictation. I also appreciate the stark modes of the well-received albeit overly strewn nine-minute rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." The song as a whole is misfired but not overly so, and perhaps it can be ranked as the album's distant third best. There are a couple tracks where the producers made some questionable decisions. There's the backwards horns lacing "No Tears - In the End," and the plodding, rubbery grooves in "River." These might have been done as quirky things to liven up mediocre songs, but it ultimately didn't match, like tap dancers in a ballet. The orchestration is also somewhat unusual in "Conversation Love," laden with strings and woodwinds that seem to do nothing but flutter, but in that case I find I enjoy how light and airy it is.
A minor highlight is "I'm the Girl" -- a low-key, jazzy song that I can imagine listening to at a small, classy night club while sipping on a martini. Then "When You Smile" is a pleasant, ragtimey type song. It doesn't match with anything else in the album, but I appreciate it anyway. So perhaps my earlier characterization of the album being just two good songs wasn't fair. The rest of the album might be uninspired as a whole, but I could be doing worse things than listening to those. Nickelback, maybe. Though without the two hits, we'd be looking at an album that'd only get a 10/15 or 9/15.
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