When an artist of Robert Flack’s caliber and legacy announces that she is re-imagining The Beatles songbook, hopes run high, perhaps dangerously so. This is particularly true when no less than Yoko Ono has reportedly given the much-anticipated project her blessing and stated that “"With this collection, Roberta is adding a woman's voice of fun and joy and, again, making people realize how universal these songs are." Sometimes such credible announcements lead to the pleasant effect of having those lofty expectations met or exceeded. This is not one of those moments. Robert Flack’s first full-length recorded album in eight years unfortunately reveals more flaws and ill-conceived follies than moments of unbridled joy.
Given the enduring legacy of Flack and her oft-covered hits “Killing Me Softly,” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and “Feel Like Making Love,” not to mention her legendary duets with Donny Hathaway and Peabo Bryson, you want to love anything that comes from this national treasure. Try if you can on Let It Be Roberta, I dare you.
A native of the Washington, DC area and a much-celebrated Howard University alum, Roberta Flack was a musical prodigy and something of a genius, finishing college by 19, teaching and gigging throughout her 20s, before recording with the legendary Joel Dorn in 1969 with her gold-selling, cross-over debut First Take for Atlantic Records by age 32. She’d be a household name for more than the next four decades. Now 74 years young and restrained in her number of public appearances and performances, the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum artist has watched her legend only grow over the last 25 years, starting with the rise of neo-soul and stars like D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Amel Larrieux and Glenn Lewis covering her greatest hits. In more recent years, underground darling Flying Lotus has recorded a loving tribute to the gifted pianist and singer/songwriter (entitled “RobertaFlack”) and countless nationally televised vocal competitions rolling out a version of some ingénue attempting “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a song made famous in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. All of which ensures that while Flack has been gone from the public eye, her work is clearly not forgotten.
Similarly, The Beatles have enjoyed recent cycles of pop culture success, with films like Across the Universe and Cirque du Soleil shows like Love reintroducing The Beatles to new generations. During these revivalist seasons of Beatlemania, cover albums and performances abound as much now as they did during The Beatles’ heyday. Sometimes these renewals of John, Paul, Ringo, and George’s classics are re-imagined, remixed, or simply re-sung with great vigor, ingenuity and aplomb. Let It Be Roberta is not one of those times.
Flack’s voice, always a sensitive instrument, is thin here to the point of sing-talking karaoke throughout this project. Lacking the stylization skills of women of her stature late in their career, such as Bettye Lavette, Nancy Wilson or Shirley Horn, a diminished Flack is left flailing through a sea of deceptive material she cannot master. Robbed of interpretive powers, her colorless pop voice invites judgment on its quality, resonance, and power, leaving nothing but a harsh verdict available for listeners in the jury box. Her blues on “Oh Darling” can barely lift its depressed arms out of the bed much less rise to so much as authentic pain. Where vocals needn’t be robust to be effective, as on normally poignant ballads like “In My Life” and “If I Fell,” Flack’s producers do her no favors by modernizing the music and speeding up the tempo, draining these classics of all their emotionalism, but worse yet the awe and wonder intended in a lyric like “If I Fell.” Despite a cool electric guitar solo, the anthemic take of “Let It Be” begs the question of whether Flack believes a single thing she’s singing, particularly when stacked up against Carol Woods’ devastating rendering of the lyric’s urgent appeal in the recent Across The Universe.
Repeatedly, the producers seem to be playing a game at Flack’s expense, as on the over-produced, synthesized “And I Love Him” and “Isn’t It A Pity.” On “Come Together,” a song Flack works mightily to save in a flash of interpretive astuteness, her producers seem determined to surround the singer with a third-rate bar band, anemic arrangements, and tossed-in supporting vocals rather than the throbbing funk and rock instrumentation that the melody and chords demand. The contemporary update of the single “We Can Work It Out” is about the only cut ready for radio, and that’s not saying much.
I’m unsure how producers Sherrod Barnes (Beyonce, Angie Stone), Jerry Barnes, and Barry Miles managed to have produced arrangements and instrumentation that sound both overdone and conversely under-produced at the same time, but manage they do. Only on the stripped-down, early recording of “Here, There, Everywhere,” with Flack behind the keys and performing with the simple, emotional honesty that made her an understated star, are listeners reminded why an album marrying The Beatles and Roberta Flack was ever considered a good idea from the start. Shame they didn’t stop after this gem while they were still ahead. Not recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson