I know Roberta Flack from “Killing Me Softly” and that’s about it. I’m sure I’ve compared her with any number of other female soul/R&B singers throughout my life. I really don’t know anything about her. And so I wasn’t really prepared for this in any way, which is good because I didn’t have expectations.
Flack’s story is interesting and quite unusual for a soul singer, though I didn’t know anything about that either before I listened to this. I looked into the story because I couldn’t believe how self-assured she was on this debut. Turns out there’s a reason: she was (relatively) old when she made this record, having performed for years (though mostly at the same establishment).
The song selection is super diverse. I complain a lot about interpretative albums but I this is the kind I like, where the performer takes a hugely disparate set of songs and makes them all sound like they’re hers. There’s jazz, there’s a Venezuelan (folk?) song (sung in Spanish!), there are at least two contemporary soul songs (which may have been written for her), there’s gospel, there’s Leonard Cohen and something that looks like it might have begun as a Brill Building pop (or other classic pop) song (based upon its composers). That’s a pretty wide range, but it all just sounds like soul.
The arrangements are slick and a little heavy on the horns/strings, Flack is such a compelling performer it doesn’t really matter. Moreover, the mix rightly puts her voice way up front so that the strings are fairly unobtrusive. In fact, it feels to me as though the Philly Soul arrangers and producers could have learned a lot from this, how to dress up songs without making them sound like the lushest recordings ever.
It’s a pretty great debut and the kind of thing I wish I had listened to much sooner.