The Good: Good voice, Some interesting lyrics, Duration
The Bad: Boring. Seriously.
The Basics: Boring, unchallenging musically and vocally and ultimately unimpressive, Roberta convinces me to pass on devoting June to Roberta Flack!
Back in early December of 2008, as I was driving away from my first meeting with the woman who would only five months later become my wife, I wrote up a list of musical artists to be my Artist Of The Month for the next few years. I was excited. I would spend the year exploring musical artists I had less experience with than I wanted and give myself both a chance to branch out in terms of musical appreciation. It was a good plan and - outside of supply problems - has been generally going well. Then I got in Roberta.
Roberta is an album by singer-songwriter and performer Roberta Flack and it made sense: she was intended to be a Artist Of The Month. No longer. After listening to Ella Fitzgerald's works - Celebrated reviewed here! - I got quite tired of writing about the differences between artists and performers. Roberta Flack is, supposedly, an artist, but on Roberta, she is simply a performer and frankly, listening to this album on high replay this last week, I'm tired of her already, so I'm not having her as my Artist Of The Month. Frankly, those who perform "standards" bore me now. Jazz vocalists tend to either be derivative or just boring with their interpretations and I am far more interested in actual artists who write their own works and have something they want to say. A quick search revealed that Flack did not write "Killing Me Softly" (which was how she ended up on my list, I suspect) and I decided I was not going to spend a whole month bored by Flack's interpretations of songs Fitzgerald, Rod Stewart and innumerable others might have already done. One album can make quite a difference when it comes to immersing oneself in an artist!
With fifteen tracks - there are fourteen songs and an introduction to one of them, which is spoken words - occupying a healthy 72:54, Roberta is not a bad use of the compact disc medium. And perhaps this album is a huge departure for Roberta Flack that fans of her more r&b styles might appreciate, but this is largely vocal jazz. It is a mediocre, at best, outing for Flack and there is no real soul or spark to it. Flack is the primary vocalist on every track. She did not, however, write any of the songs, nor play any instruments. She did, however, co-arrange six of the songs and she is credited as the sole producer on the album, which is odd because she is only credited as producer on a single track. Regardless, it is tough to say that this is in any way the musical vision of Roberta Flack. Instead, on this album she is relegated to performer and she sings what is put before her, the way (largely) others tell her to.
On Roberta, Roberta Flack presents such jazz standards as "In A Sentimental Mood," "My Romance," "Thrill Is Gone" and "Isn't It Romantic." She presents these alongside vocal jazz arrangements of Stevie Wonders' "Looking For Another Pure Love" and "Let's Stay Together," which I had only heard performed by Tina Turner before this. "Prelude To A Kiss" and "Tenderly" are also recognizable to fans of vocal jazz, especially those who have studied performers like Ella Fitzgerald.
The vocals are obvious for the style but what is most surprising about Roberta, at least for those just coming to her with this album, is how little range is presented by Flack on the album. "You'll Never Know ('Til You Let Go)" seems like it could be higher or have notes held longer, but Flacks sings it with a smokier, lower tone and does not prolong notes with any sense of emotion. In fact, the song is stunted by the performance; it lacks a spark, it lacks passion. Unfortunately, this is true of almost every track on the album.
A lack of passion is a death knell for songs like "Isn't It Romantic?," but Flack presents it without any spark, any zest. Instead, she gives a pedestrian, bland presentation of the song which is shockingly dull and unimaginative. Here, Flack's lack of arranging on the album benefits her; that "Isn't It Romantic?" is presented as a bland, straightforward cover song is hardly her fault, it was arranged in an obvious way by Kenny Barron. Sadly, that excuse is one that wears thin for fans and listeners quite quickly. The album opens with a slowly building "Let's Stay Together" which is drawn out and agonizing for its bored presentation. In other words, we don't hear the passion from Flack. Even Tina Turner put some energy into her take on the song and at least she sounded excited to be staying with the person she was singing the song to.
I've been resisting the urge to make a joke out of Flack's interpretation of "Thrill Is Gone," but that song is presented with more energy than most of the songs on the album. Presented as an up-tempo jam as opposed to a mournful lament, "Thrill Is Gone" manages to overcome the singsong rhyme moments to present a song that one can tap their toes to. Flack's vocals are never overwhelmed by the instrumentals, which consist of a strong bass and pretty kicking pianos, but it does not shine as much as the instrumentals either.
Roberta is plagued by remarkably limited instrumentals as well as lackluster vocals and pedestrian arrangements of classic songs. Virtually every track is slow - "Thrill Is Gone" being the notable exception -and piano and bass driven. The percussion is most frequently a combination of bass and a simple snare set which acts more as punctuation than mood. This is a tough sell after coming off a month with Mick Fleetwood's drumming being of vital importance to the songs of Fleetwood Mac. The percussion here is dull and the songs blend together as auditory sludge.
I'll be honest; I have limited experiences with jazz, but I have some (thank you Ella Fitzgerald!) and I know what I like. I applaud originality (which is why I haven't listened to any of Rod Stewart's albums since he became a standards performer), I adore range and I celebrate artists who have talent and something to say. I'm truncating my exploration of Roberta Flack's music because if any of the above are true, they are not evident from Flack on Roberta. There is jazz that I enjoy, despite being songs written by others, when the vocalist is imaginative or just obviously talented. But on songs like "It Might Be You," Flack sounds like she is sleeping through her singing of it and when I return this album to the library, I know within two days, I will not remember it.
We all deserve better from those we listen to than that.
The best track is "Thrill Is Gone," the rest of the album is worth passing by.
For other works by women who actually became my Artist Of The Month, please visit my reviews of:
Surfacing - Sarah McLachlan
Hits And Rarities - Sheryl Crow
Collection - Alanis Morissette
For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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