Posts Tagged ‘First Impressions’

Years long ago, making a long-distance phone call for any length of time required one to first take out a mortgage. I’m being a tad facetious, of course, but consider this: In 1974, the first three minutes cost about $12 and each minute thereafter set one back four bucks; in today’s money, in other words, a five-minute call clocked in at $105. (See this ArsTechnica article for more.) By 1987, the average price had fallen to just shy of 30 cents a minute (69 cents in today’s change), but “average” is just that, with high per-minute rates on weekdays and lower rates late at night and on weekends. As a result, for all but the rich, hearing the voices of far-away family and/or friends was generally saved for special occasions or emergencies.

(For those curious, this MEL article explains why long-distance calls were so expensive.)

Stationary, envelopes and stamps were the communications currency of the era, in other words. One scribbled. One thought. One reflected upon and shared recent events in one’s life, and sometimes connected them with long-ago transgressions and triumphs. Some letters were a page long, others 20, and depending upon one’s scrawl, some words could be confused for others…or only understood in the context of the words that surrounded them. Things began to shift in the ‘90s with the mass embrace of, first, online services like AOL and Prodigy and, eventually, the Internet, email, instant messaging and Facebook.

Which is to say, these days, it’s a rarity to send or receive a letter.

Those are my first thoughts upon listening to “Letter to You,” the title track – and first single from – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s forthcoming album, which is slated for an Oct. 23rd release. It harkens back to a simpler age in both sound and style.

“I love the emotional nature of Letter To You,” says Bruce in the album’s announcement, which was shared on Thursday Sept. 10th. “And I love the sound of the E Street Band playing completely live in the studio, in a way we’ve never done before, and with no overdubs. We made the album in only five days, and it turned out to be one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had.”

My second thought: Bruce never articulates what exactly he “found out through hard times and good.” His lyrics sum up the letter without revealing its contents; instead, he trades in the broadest of metaphoric strokes: “I took all the sunshine and rain/all my happiness and all my pain/the dark evening stars and morning sky of blue/and I sent it in my letter to you.” (In some respects, the song could well be a harder-rockin’ spin-off of “Hello Sunshine.”)

My third thought: the letter’s intended recipient is his younger self. Such letters are a part of some psychological therapies, after all, helping those who write them to either come to terms with or overcome long-ago issues and anguish.

My fourth thought: the letter isn’t meant for his younger self, but his long-departed father and/or his mom, who has Alzheimer’s. It’s a way for him to communicate with them, still.

My fifth thought: Who the letter is to or what it contains doesn’t much matter. The guitars are great and drive the song, Mighty Max lays down a big beat, and Roy Bittan’s piano accents the proceedings like occasional drops of rain on an overcast day. The only thing missing: Clarence’s saxophone. That absence echoes the melancholia that underpins the song, I think.

My sixth and final thought: Damn COVID-19. My hunch is that Bruce and the E Street Band would have been launching an arena tour not long after the album’s release, with this song kicking off every night. Now? I have doubts about whether they’ll collectively set foot on a stage again.

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.

Morning breaks somewhere in the world, always, with the first cracks of light slicing across the horizon like a knife through the edge of night. Mourning – of lost love and loved ones, dashed dreams, and so much more – breaks, too. The new day brings with it new hope, but it can’t and won’t be rushed. It comes when it comes. 

Singer, songwriter and pianist Natalie Duncan’s Free skirts the divide, delving into both sides with artful precision. The album opens with “Kansas,” which is akin to a sonic wave that sweeps from the speakers with strings and wordless vocals before morphing into something more. “How many people try to put out your light/you’ll never know, so you better glow/baby, come shining/baby, come shining…”

Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements come together in an uncluttered production that enables chords to breathe – and for Aaron Janick’s trumpet to float in from the distance like a dream on certain songs and interludes, such as on “Pools” (which I featured yesterday) or “Glass,” which samples Nina Simone. 

With Richard Spaven on drums and Alan Mian on bass, a solid rhythm anchors many of the R&B-flavored tracks. “Atrium,” an early favorite, is a good example. “Going backwards/all the same words/I’ve been through this/but it still hurts/I’m just waiting for some stillness…”

“Nova” is another.

If you listened to one or both, you’ll notice an old-school vibe that conjures, but doesn’t copy, Alicia Keys. “Sirens,” “Karma” and “Autumn,” on the other hand, are jazz-imbued tunes that would be at home on a Nina Simone LP, while “Strange” (“I know I am insufferable sometimes…) and “Brave” could well be unearthed Roberta Flack treasures. 

Shorthand comparisons aside, what comes through the most is Natalie Duncan. “Diamond,” the closing track, deftly blends old-school rap with her old-school soul in a way that’s both sweet and bittersweet. “Happiness is just a concept/happiness is something you can choose to remember or forget/happiness is never, ever having to regret…” (To quote Diane, “I could listen to her rap all day.”)

Free closes just as it begins – with strings and wordless vocals – as if to demonstrate that, just as night slides into day, day glides into night; it’s the cycle of life. With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack, however, the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.