Archive for the ‘Roberta Flack’ Category

First time ever I heard her sing, I heard an angel plucking a piano string by string. Her vibrato shimmered and the passion palpable in each note simmered. She was killing me softly with her song, though it was actually a duet with Donny Hathaway, “The Closer I Get to You.” I was a few months shy of 13 and – spurred by “With a Little Luck” by Wings – just discovering Top 40 radio. The sweet groove of “Closer I Get to You” stopped time for me, just about, and made me wish I could leap through my teen years and instantly become an adult.

But, of course, if wishes were horses we’d all own ranches. My $2-a-week allowance (upgraded to $5 once I hit 13) only went so far; it wouldn’t be until late 1981 or early ‘82 that one of her LPs – The Best of Roberta Flack – entered my collection. The way her voice soared into the sky one moment before gliding to Earth the next mesmerized me. All these years later, it still does.

The 10 tracks on The Best of herald love in its many splendors. While it’s an excellent encapsulation of her career to date, it doesn’t accurately reflect her debut, First Take, which I first heard decades later (as explained here). The first time I listened to it, I was taken aback – and pleasantly surprised – that its eight tracks didn’t exclusively chart the inner workings of the human heart. Recorded in early 1969, it instead navigates the nuances of life during a tumultuous time. Revolution was in the air, but so was love – and, for some, despair. The LP mixes jazz, soul and gospel in arrangements that never feel forced or sound cluttered.

I’d be remiss in not providing a quick-hit summary of her life up until this point. A musical prodigy, she earned a full scholarship to Howard University at age 15, studying piano before switching to voice. She graduated at age 19 and became a student teacher in a Maryland suburb of D.C. while pursuing graduate studies in music. The passing of her father, however, caused her to curtail her education and pursue teaching full time.

That changed, of course. By the late ‘60s, she was wowing crowds three nights a week at a Capitol Hill restaurant. As jazz great Les McCann tells it, whenever he visited D.C. someone would encourage him to check her out. She bowled him over when he finally did in 1968; he quickly arranged an audition for her at Atlantic Records. That audition led to a three days of recording demos and then, a few months later, a full-fledged session for her debut LP. 

The taut rumble of “Compared to What,” which opens First Take, remains restrained throughout, though its lyrics (“The President, he’s got his war/Folks don’t know just what it’s for/No one gives us rhyme or reason/Have one doubt, they call it treason”) do not. “Angelitos Negros” is both pleading and reaching, a song one need not know Spanish to understand (though it helps to read a translation). “Our Ages or Our Hearts,” one of two Donny Hathaway-penned songs (this one co-written with Robert Ayers), places a heart’s desire ahead of society’s whims. “I Told Jesus,” the final song on the first side, is an old spiritual. 

The Leonard Cohen tune “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” opens the second side and then the slice of hypnotic love that is “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” blooms like a flower captured by time-lapse photography. 

“Tryin’ Times,” the other Hathaway song (written with Leroy Hutson), speaks to tumult then and now: “But maybe folks wouldn’t have to suffer/If there was more love for your brother/But these are tryin’ times…”

“The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” written by lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Tommy Wolf for the 1959 Broadway musical The Nervous Set, is an evocative slice of beat poetry set to song, conjuring the angst of a generation adrift in the bleating boredom and conformity of post-WWII America.

These aren’t teenager laments, in other words, but adult concerns and observations poignantly expressed in song. Roberta may not have written the words, but she feels them; her soul reverberates in each and every syllable.

The 50th anniversary edition, limited to 3000 copies (at least for now) and only available from SoulMusic.com, is well worth the $50. The CD bonus tracks include the single edits for “Compared to What” and “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the “First Time” b-side “Trade Winds,” as well as a live track McCann recorded in 1968 that was released in 1991 on the Les Is More compilation of his private recordings. The remaining 12 tracks are culled from the demos she recorded and sound as finished as the songs on First Take. Here are two examples:

As most music fans know, the album didn’t sell all that well upon its release, but sold enough for second and third efforts, Chapter Two (1970) and Quiet Storm (1971), to be released. Then Roberta received a phone call from none other than Clint Eastwood, who asked if he could use “First Time” in his movie Play Misty for Me. The rest, as they say, is history. The eight-track original album is a five-star affair; with the added bonus cuts, it’s beyond that.

Traditionally speaking, August is the cruelest month, accented by heat, humidity and thunderstorms. This year, however, it’s likely to be no less cruel than the months that preceded it; the Trump virus, aka COVID-19, has seen to that. As way of explanation: I found myself watching a bit of the day’s news last night; the increasing number of COVID-related deaths in the USA – 156,000 and counting – was the headline; experts are expecting exponential growth come fall, with the prospects of a quarter million or more dead by November.

Neil Young’s recasting of the Living With War song “Lookin’ for a Leader” sums up my feelings quite well: “Lookin’ for somebody/with the strength to take it on/keep us safe together/and make this country strong/walkin’ among our people/there’s someone to lead us on/lead a rainbow of colors/in a broken world gone wrong…”

In any event, each day seems the same as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, as if Diane and I are trapped in a real-life Droste effect or, perhaps more apropos, Groundhog’s Day. Come 6am, for me, the same events play out in the same order: shower, make coffee, feed the cat, log into work, listen to music, play with the cat, log off of work, retrieve the mail, feed the cat, eat dinner, do the dishes, watch TV, placate the cat, fall into bed…and do it again tomorrow. Weekends aren’t that much different, except I work on the blog.

Yet, despite the sameness of daily existence, some good has percolated through the Internet and/or been delivered to my doorstep: the new Courtney Marie Andrews album, Old Flowers, is catharsis set to song and, as I wrote in my review, one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. Here she is on CBS This Morning performing one of its stellar tracks…

Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks, another recent find, is a delight; Liane La Havas’ self-titled set is wonderful, too; and, released just yesterday, the new Natalie Duncan album, Free, is an old-fashioned stunner. I plan to write about it tomorrow, but for now here’s one of its standout tracks…

Also: The groove machine known as the Stone Foundation has a new album, Is Love Enough?, slated for a September release. The latest teaser track from it, “Deeper Love,” features Paul Weller and is the sonic equivalent to a warm bath. It’s guaranteed to take away the aches of the day…

Last: the surprise release of Folklore by you-know-who. Fans were apparently so upset that the Pitchfork review graded it an 8 out of 10 that they threatened the writer with all kinds of craziness; some even called her at home to express their displeasure. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica also found the album a solid, not stellar, outing, setting off a similar firestorm. Me, I listened to it last Friday and thought that, like many albums of the modern age, its length was not a strength, but a hindrance. (Too much chaff, not enough wheat.) That said, the title tune is quite memorable…

(Oops… wrong “Folk Lore”!)

What else? I’m expecting the 50th anniversary edition of Roberta Flack’s First Take album any day now; here’s one of the previously unreleased songs included with it. Expect my thoughts on it next week.

It’s early Sunday morn as I write, and Roberta Flack is killing me softly with her songs. My trusty Tribit headphones cover my ears, and – though Bluetooth capable – are plugged into my Macbook Pro via an M-Audio Micro DAC. It’s a plug-in sound card that, as the picture shows, is just a tad larger than a thumb drive, and enables me to listen to 24-bit, 192-kHz music files in all their glory without first copying said files to my Pono player. 

A MacBook Pro can output 24/96 through its headphone jack, of course, by switching the settings in the MIDI utility, and the sound quality is quite good for both high-res files and the Neil Young Archives, which streams up to 24/192. But this $100 Micro DAC improves the sound, be it through my headphones or solid Logitech Z623 THX-certified 2.1 computer speakers.

I should mention that, a few summers back, I stopped using the Pono player on a regular basis. It overheated once, then twice, and then a few more times during the summers of ’16 and ’17 while I was out and about, and then, while listening in our den one hot-and-humid afternoon, it didn’t just overheat, but fried the 128g micro-SD card inside. (I made the “mistake” of listening while charging.) By that point, however, I’d already grown tired not just of adding and subtracting files from my micro-SD cards, but of toting two gadgets around.

Around the same time, I decided to give Apple Music a go. While there was a drop-off in quality, there wasn’t a drop-off in what – to me, at least – is the most important factor when it comes to music: emotional quotient. And, truthfully, what I hear via my iPhone or MacBook Pro is better than what I enjoyed via the Realistic stereo system my parents gifted me with for Christmas ’77  and the Realistic cassette deck I installed in my little brown Chevette in ‘85, to say nothing of staticky AM radio. All things are relative, in other words. Sometimes “good enough” is enough.

Yet, when at my desk and in the mood, I often fire up the Vox app and play some of the high-res files I collected from 2014 through early ’17 – or just stream from the NYA site. How to enjoy that music to its fullest? While there are many options, some of which are rather pricey, for me right now it’s the M-Audio Micro DAC. It gets the job done.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Sunday, 9/1/19. 

1) Roberta Flack – “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” A few years back, Diane and I watched Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story, a one-hour documentary about Roberta’s ascent to stardom, on (I think) Amazon Prime. For me, it was something of a revelation – I picked up a few of her albums from the Pono Store in the weeks that followed. This, her rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic (found on her 1971 Quiet Fire album), is just mesmerizing. 

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “American Tune.” One of Paul Simon’s greatest songs, from his 1973 There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, was given the Simon & Garfunkel treatment during their now-legendary 1981 Central Park concert. The lyrics are as appropriate now as they were in ‘73: “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/or driven to its knees/But it’s all right, it’s all right/We’ve lived so well so long/Still, when I think of the road/we’re traveling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.”

3) Courtney Marie Andrews & Deer Tick – “You’re the One That I Want.” Speaking of duets… and to lighten the mood… there’s this clip of a Grease cover, which I just discovered last night. Trust me when I say, “It’s electrifying!”

4) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Downtown Train.” Speaking of Courtney, she’s part of the forthcoming collection of Tom Waits songs, Come on Up to the House, which also includes Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent, Phoebe Bridgers and Patty Griffin, among others.

5) Allison Moorer – “The Rock and the Hill.” One album I’m anticipating is Allison Moorer’s Blood, which will be released alongside her memoir of the same name in late October. If this tasty track is any indication, it’s going to be flat-out great. (If you’re so inclined, head over to Allison’s website and pre-order both it and the book. And then check out her online journal, which is always an interesting read.)

And one bonus…

6) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Milky Way.” Another album I’m looking forward to is Colorado, which is also due out in October. It features Neil backed by a reconstituted Crazy Horse (with Nils Lofgren on guitar in place of Frank “Poncho” Sampredo). This, the first single, is both stirring and subdued at once.

Last night, Diane and I veered away from the never-ending Gilmore Girls marathon on Up to give the Amazon Prime series Good Girls Revolt a try. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the polished drama is a fictionalized adaptation of Lynn Povich’s 2012 book The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. Names have been changed, characters invented and/or combined into one, and the magazine has been retitled News of the Week – but the gist remains the same. As with most professions in 1969 America, which is when the series is set, women were relegated to secondary and supportive roles in most newsrooms. It took a group of brave women to change that.

At essence, then, Good Girls Revolt is sort of a feminist spin on Mad Men. No, it’s not as solid as that series was out of the gate, but it is a step up from the other Mad Men-inspired series I’ve seen. My biggest complaint: the characters are more archetypical than fully formed. For instance, hippie-in-spirit researcher Patti (Genevieve Angelson) – the lead character – sometimes seems little more than a mature Karen Arnold (Kevin’s one-dimensional big sister on The Wonder Years); and her erstwhile reporter-boyfriend Doug (Hunter Parrish) comes across as a cardboard cut-out of a reporter-boyfriend.

I sound a tad harsher there than I intended; the series is a step above most network fare. It peels the gauzy nostalgia from our collective memory and shows that, indeed, not everything in the past was hunky-dory or better than the present. In fact, as most things societal go, the past was worse.

And, for purposes of this blog, it inspired today’s Top 5: Good Girls Revolt (circa 1969). 

1) Janis Joplin – “Work Me, Lord” From The Woodstock Art & Music Fair, 8/17/1969.

2) Jefferson Airplane – “Somebody to Love.” From Dick Cavett’s post-Woodstock episode (8/19/1969) – note David Crosby playing tambourine beside Paul Kantner.

3) Laura Nyro – “He’s a Runner/Save the Country.” From Bobby Darin’s Sounds of the Sixties TV special (though I believe only “Save the Country” aired), which aired Jan. 22, 1969.

4) Roberta Flack – “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Not sure where this is from, just that it’s 1969. Great song, under-appreciated singer.

5) Dusty Springfield – “Son of a Preacher Man.” From a rather psychedelic 1969 German TV special.

And three bonus songs…

6) Jackie DeShannon – “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

7) Joni Mitchell – “Woodstock.” From a 1970 appearance on the BBC.

8) Diana Ross & the Supremes – “Someday We’ll Be Together.” The last No. 1 hit of the 1960s…