Friday, October 30, 2009

#169: NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN - Harry Nilsson

Artist: Harry Nilsson

Title: Nilsson Sings Newman
Year: 1970
Label: RCA
Songs: Vine St./Love Story/Yellow Man/Caroline/Cowboy/The Beehive State/I'll Be Home/Living Without You/Dayton, Ohio 1903/So Long Dad
Written by: Randy Newman
A Nilsson House Production
Thoughts: While Nilsson's first three albums seem to build on top of each other, Nilsson Sings Newman, his fourth, features an entirely different sound. Gone is the Spector-esque Wall Of Sound, as is the whimsical originality of Nilsson's own songs. Instead, it is replaced by the cynical songwriting and sly piano playing of a young Randy Newman.
The stark contrast makes the album seem, at least at first, like a disappointment. Nilsson was at the forefront of the pop world at the time, writing numerous songs that became hits for other people. Now, he was the one taking someone else's songs and making them accessible to the average buyer. However, if you forget that Nilsson is a songwriter himself, and you just think of him as a beautiful singer, you realize quickly that this album is a hallmark of 1970. The fact of the matter is that no one else was making a record like this in 1970. While it lead to a chart flop, it was a critical success in its time (it was actually named 1970's "Record of the Year" by Stereo Magazine).
For Nilsson, who doesn't play a single instrument on the record, these songs prove to be fantastic vocal exercises, from the harsh power of "Cowboy" to the heartbreaking command in "I'll Be Home". The remarkable thing is that the only voice you hear on this record is Harry's. The choir in "I'll Be Home" is all Harry and the backups in "Living Without You" is all Harry.
For Randy Newman, this record gave him a chance to get his name to a wider audience. He had been making records for a few years before this (in fact, only "Caroline" was specifically written for Nilsson), but never had any of the success that Nilsson was having. His piano-playing on the record also proves that this really should be billed as a "Harry Nilsson & Randy Newman" album. If Nilsson is the mouth, Newman is the heart. The best example of this is in "Living Without You", easily the best track here. As Nilsson belts out this ridiculous vocal performance, Newman's piano follows along, pumping like a heartbeat as Nilsson brings his vocal up. "Cowboy" also features some fantastic playing and so does the rest of the record.
There is also this really unique feature with this album. If you listen to it with headphones, you get the effect of hearing Newman's piano the way Nilsson did as he was singing in the studio. The piano is mixed so far behind the vocal that it sounds like it's in another room. Also, in a typically bizarre Nilsson way, some of Newman's talking was left in the master, so, for example, during the fade-out of "So Long Dad", you hear Newman instructing Nilsson on how to sing the end.
Simply put, this album is just an incredible listening experience. The only bad part - it lasts just over 25 minutes.

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