ROBERTA FLACK / “I Can See The Sun In Late December”
Especially disappointing is a Stevie Wonder opus, "I Can See the Sun in Late December," that rambles on for more than 12 minutes. One of Wonder's more self-indulgent paeans to celestial spirituality, Flack's interpretation of it is characteristically chilly and the overly long instrumental break a disorganized mélange of tingly, ethereal sounds. Flack's talents are undeniable. But that she, like her protégé Donny Hathaway, has chosen to academicize her creativity is disheartening. Flack possesses a beautiful voice, but beautiful just isn't enough. (RS 185) —Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden, Apr 24, 1975Holden wasn’t alone. In their writeup of Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Makin’ Love LP, Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews (“We listen to the lousy records so you won’t have to”) calls “I Can See The Sun” “unbearably overextended” and “the low point” of the album. Meanwhile, I happen to think it’s a great performance of a damned good song. Thing is, I usually find myself on the opposite side of this sort of disagreement, reading praise for this sentimental schlock or that poppy pap and wondering what the hell was the reviewer listening to. And even in this case, although I couldn’t disagree more, I can hear what the haters are talking about. But I guess I’m focused on other things, things that make the record work for me. When I listen to “I Can See The Sun” and really focus in on the words, I can hear them as a “self-indulgent paean to celestial spirituality.” But I never would’ve thought of them that way on my own. For me, the words are more like non-specific positive vibes rather than an attempt at putting forth a particular philosophy, self-indulgent or otherwise. Likewise, instead of hearing “a disorganized mélange of tingly, ethereal sounds,” I hear an attempt (a successful one at that) to interpret the sounds of nature – to give the listener the feeling they might get on a sunny December morning off in the woods somewhere. For me, “I Can See The Sun” is peaceful, spiritual and, I’ll admit, pleasantly easy on the ears too. As a whole, the song gives me a feeling of contemplation, possibility and optimism. The other thing is, I tend to think of “I Can See The Sun” as part of a large batch of Stevie Wonder songs about the sun and/or summertime. Think about it: there’s “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer,” “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” “Blame It On The Sun,” “Happier Than The Morning Sun,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and “Summer Soft.” And that’s just the songs about summer. There are others – “Superwoman” comes to mind right away – with lyrics that deal with the other side of the same theme. (The famous line from “Superwoman” is “where were you when I needed you last winter.”) The point is: there’s more than one way to look at these lyrics. You can see them as self-indulgent or as touchy-feely new ageism, but on the other hand you can see them as an insight into the way Stevie Wonder “sees” the world. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by Stevie’s fascination with the seasons. When he writes, “I bet that you can’t even see the sun / Although the sun is shining right before your eyes,” it’s as though he’s telling us to appreciate what we have. On a personal level, it’s a blind man telling the rest of us to appreciate the valuable gift of sight. On a general or metaphorical level, it’s a gifted songwriter showing us that beauty is all around us and yet, we don’t even notice it, let alone appreciate it. And Roberta’s performance – which Holden summarized as “characteristically chilly” – is as good as the lyrics. She sounds reserved, yes. But that fits in with the theme. The song is about those of us who go through life absent to the beauty all around us, those of us who “can’t even see the sun.” A more dynamic vocal display wouldn’t be appropriate. One last thing. Re: the “overly-long” and or “unbearably overextended” instrumental break that ends the song. I think the reviewers are missing the point. Technically, it isn’t a ‘break’ at all. It’s a dub. The way I hear it, “I Can See The Sun” works the same way as a showcase mix works in reggae. You spin the vocal version, then after that’s done, you flip the dub version right in behind it. Six minutes of vocals, six minutes of groove. Ask me and I’ll tell you it couldn’t have been done any better. What? —Mtume ya Salaam Roberta’s long thing with Stevie Mtume, man, you be stepping knee deep in the chocolate doo-doo and not fully realizing what the funk is going down. Roberta did a bunch of long Stevie tunes where they grab a groove and go with it. Generally her songs were in the radio-friendly three-minute range, but her Stevie interpretations tended to ease on down the road — a four-, five-, six- or twelve-minute long sip of slow beauty half-fast strolling round the bend. I’ve always dug those songs. Here are two more for your ed-ju-ma-cation. “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long” with its signature Stevie bassline clocks in at just shy of eight minutes. At 4:51, “Looking For Another Pure Love” is the shortie of the group, but then rather than mainly a dance groove, “Pure Love” is also a lyrical ballad with a bounce. This collection of Roberta Flack sings Stevie Wonder reminds us that many of the major contributors to Black music have a deep and captivating musical catalogue that stretches well beyond their commercial hits. Mtume, although neither of us planned to do a feature on Roberta emphasizing her non-hit, albeit hip, hip Stevie interpretations, once you drop one, the other naturally follows. I didn’t start off thinking about Roberta’s Stevie interpretations, but once you opened my eyes, opened my ears with your classic selection, there it was: a whole wonderful world of Black sounds waiting patiently for me to get to them. Thanks Mtume. Thanks Stevie. Thanks Roberta. These are some beautiful grooves. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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