Friday, December 12, 2008

Not Blogging: Nilsson Sings Newman

I haven't lately had the time or the inclination to write anything here, but my friend Mauricio, who insists that the e-mail he sent to a handful of friends earlier in the week isn't blog-like, has written a nice little essay on what is I suppose as "lost" an album as one can find in this day and age, where everything seems a mere click away. Enjoy!

Hi kids - this will only hurt a bit...

Couple of days ago, after weeks of listening to nothing but Post Punk records by Gang of Four and Adam Ant, I desperately found myself in a singer/songwriter mood. But not for any of that precious Bon Iver/Jose Gonzalez stuff.... yes, They Are Great. Yes, this decade's crop of SSWs is quite lush. But I've been craving something that doesn't have the word Hip sewn on it's sleeve; I'm craving a singer that doesn't deliver his lines in a wispy-willow whisper (or a wimpy James Taylor whine) that says "I'm sensitive and sad but it's ok cause soon I'll be almost famous in Brooklyn."

I was looking for something that my dad would have listened to when HE was wearing hip on HIS sleeve, wherever Brooklyn was in those days.

So I started pecking around the Warren Zevon catalog. I had a few tracks, just the standards. Lawyers Guns and Money has been a long-time favorite; and if you haven't seen his appearance on the Larry Sanders Show, you just aren't living. But I've always hated the way his records sound - that glossy West Coast pro-production that's ruined so many decent records. But I had a suspicion that under all that shitty, dated LA trash, there were some gems to be found. I did manage to find some stripped-down demo recordings that lets his unique brand of sleazy pathos come alive without being buried alive by the Rock Jock Avalanche. (That shit should stay where it belongs. On Steely Dan records, where it's not just tolerable. It's fucking joyous).

But I digress....

After pilfering all the Zevon I could handle, I moved on to Kris Kristoffersson. If Johnny Cash is the Stones, then Kris must be the Beatles. I'd always liked his stuff when someone else was singing it (there's a couple of great KK tributes records out there) so I figured it was time to pony up $29.99 for the Essential Kris Kristofferson and hear the man deliver his own songs. It now sits proudly on my shelf with other artists in that series: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond (thank you Matt, for that last one).

But wait. That's not why I'm writing this either. I suppose I should get on with it before you send me the electronic equivalent of a spit in the eye. So, our story is propelled forward by the magic of internet consumer algorithms – through them I was led divinely through Zevon to Kristofferson, to finally land softly on the catalog of crazy old Harry Nilsson.

We've all heard Everybody's Talkin' and Coconut. You may know he's the original composer of the song "One", made famous in the 60's by Three Dog Night and most recently covered by Aimee Mann on the Magnolia soundtrack. And you may even have heard his own deliciously cheesy cover of Badfinger's "Without You" (I've been driving Yula crazy singing it around the Ithaca house at the top of my lungs, clutching my hands to my breast, channelling Bonnie Tyler and Bono. That's how I roll when left stranded upstate. Since quitting smoking, I don't even have to leave the house for cigarettes.)

Shit. Stay on track. Ok. Here we go.

But gimmicky little songs and the title track to Midnight Cowboy aside... it seems that Nilsson did indeed record one of the true lost gems of the 1970's.

The recording is not available on iTunes or Emusic, and it seems to be out of print on vinyl and CD. But there was quite a bit of chatter about if on the Internets, so I bought a copy from some little in shop in California, courtesy of amazon z-shops (who says mom and pop is dead. Knight, there's hope for Book Bin yet). I think this might be the first record in 5 years I've purchased sight unseen (sound unheard?). Turns out this chatter was no mere static.

Now, I've never been a fan of Randy Newman. He's always impressed me as the musical equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting. And he looks strangely like a Jewish owl. Don't get me wrong - I love owls. And you all know I not-so-secretly hope to become a true New York Jew someday when I'm old(er). But Newman's performances were always too vaudevillian at best and downright douchy at worst.

But hand his songs over over to the John Lennon-obsessed Nilsson, with his creepy-crazy Brian Wilson production and drug-addled delivery and these songs take on a new light. Some of them remind me of Bill Fay (another semi-obscure British folkie from the 60's recently brought to light by Wilco's take of his "How To Fight Loneliness." But that's another story. See, I'm on task).

I'm on my third listening of NSN, and dare I say, a gem it is. It's anachronistic and weird; tinkling and soothing and baroque. I'm pretty sure Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Elliot Smith were fans of this record. The production is intimate, the arrangements uncluttered. There's classic Lennon/McCartney-style double-tracking all over it. Some of it sounds like something you might hear at a carnival in the 40's. And you can hear how Wilco might have arrived at their Beach Boys take on Americana.

Matt, something tells me you'll like this record; it's definitely no Walkmen ;-) It's delicate and nostalgic; familiar and strange and ultimately pretty easy listening for a Sunday morning or a bleary, boozy 3AM after many glasses of Malbec. Plus, there's a song about Dayton, OH on it, so you Midwestern kids can relate.

Knight, seeing how you're the senior member of the group, I'm guessing you must have come across this record before? Sorry, was that ageist?
And Steve, as the only officially sanctioned musicologist in the group (my credentials are trumped up and highly suspect), have you had this record spinning along on your old Victrola all this time? Please send your thoughts, gentlemen.

Ok, I'm done, sorry to put you through all this. Thanks for reading, kids. No. I am NOT high. Just nicotine-deprived (It's kind of like being high without any of the, you know, pleasure).

Now, go listen. You may hate it and think I'm a wanker. I am, but that's not news...

Point your browser here:

(actually, don't; if you have any questions, contact Mauricio at

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