Set The Night To Music (Atlantic)
Roberta Flack

By Michael Campbell

YO! RO! WHOA!

Only in America could a pop music artist catch grief over trying to sound too contemporary, and yet as Set the Night to Music rocketed into the Top 10 singles charts, a few pundits issued this very accusation, using said song as an example. Obviously, they had not heard the album's opening track, The Waiting Game.

This cut is true genuflection toward generic pop, complete with the lyrical depth found in Paula Abdul's most compelling moments, and featuring that exalted rapmaster Quincy Jones. To be fair, this cut is no worse than most of the WDJX rotation (all ten songs), but, coming from this lady, it disappoints with the same sadness one might feel upon hearing that Michelle Pfieffer had eloped with Dan Quayle.

The title song is not atypical of Ms. Flack's post-'70s hits: a lush, romantically correct duet with a passionate male voice riding the title phrase into numbing repetition. (Maxi Priest does the honors this time.) These arrangements yield a sly advantage. It doesn't take anyone very long to learn most of the words.

America's love affair with Roberta began in the early '70s with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. That aching, honest voice, amidst the sparse production of Joel Dorn, was able to arouse prurient interest with her sizzling read of Reverend Lee, and floor you with the dignified intensity of Just Like a Woman in the space of one album (in this case her second recording Take Two). Even when she and Donny Hathaway were dubbed Atlantic's antiseptic soul singers by Rolling Stone, their first duet hit Where Is the Love managed to convey the yearning frustration implied by the lyrics.

This new release was produced by Arif Mardin, one of the architects of Atlantic's mighty influence on what we lovingly know as soul music. Arif's track record reveals his tendency toward overproduction, and herein lies the major part of the problem.

Nowhere on this recording are we given a chance to hear the voice without a lot of distraction. In fact, during much of the album, gooey wads of digital delay pulsed lazily from my speakers. And to make it even sadder, the sounds being Cheez-Whizzed are not even real. I should have braced for the worst upon discovering that all eleven songs have credits for programming, and none of the eleven songs credit the existence of drums.

One gets the impression that this producer does not believe that his singer has the power or presence to fill the song, so all the sonic space must be occupied with lots o' stuff. This technique renders Unforgettable forgettable, and rinses Something Your Heart Has Been Telling Me (co-written by Bette Midler) with a melody and lyric ripe with potential, into an emotional washout.

Ironically, after repeated listening, I find the most telling commentary lurking in that first cut, The Waiting Game: I'm running out of patience/It's time to change the station/Just look me in the eye and say goodbye/If your heart ain't in it.

I know her heart is in it; it just got lost in the mix.