Album: Nilsson Sings Newman
LP, 8-track, Cassette
Original Release: RCA Victor Records, February, 1970
I don’t know about you, but considering something that happened forty-seven years ago, and which I remember with crystalline clarity—is terrifying. I don’t have that level of awareness of last night’s dinner.
So: my older brother Chuck worked at and subsequently managed stores for the late and not-entirely-lamented Discount Records chain. Don’t bother Googling them: it was a chain owned by Columbia Records, likely in violation of all manner of anti-trust regulations, and which vanished from both commerce and memory decades ago. Oh, well.
The deal in the early ’70’s was that I heard a LOT of current releases on demo discs, and everything else at ridiculous discounts. Thus I was introduced to John Prine, Dan Hicks, Harry Partch, The Goon Show, Edgard Varese, and pretty much everything in between. The favorites of my teen years were The Mothers, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Martin Mull, and The Move. Needless to say: my tastes in music didn’t help get me invited to many parties. Even in an allegedly-avant-garde college town, rolling one’s eyes at the Doobie Brothers didn’t win friends.
There are honestly not many records which appealed to me as a 14-year-old that I can listen to now without extreme embarrassment. Nilsson Sings Newman is one of the very few. Released in 1970, NSN has a directness and purity rarely heard again in the intervening half-century.
Anyway: by 1970, Randy Newman was largely known only in LA as the talented, sardonic songwriting nephew of the Newman clan—his uncles were Alfred, Lionel, and Emil Newman of movie-score fame— and had released one album in 1968, Randy Newman, which was a critical success but a commercial flop. That album introduced a number of songs that would be associated with Newman for decades, including “Love Story” (remembered largely for the chorus “you and me, you and me, babe”, popularized in a deodorant ad, of all things), “Davy the Fat Boy” (which presaged the tongue-in-cheek snark of 1977’s “Short People”), and most importantly, the heart-rending “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”. The problem was that Randy Newman—the album—was not exactly a polished, radio-ready product, even in the heyday of album-rock FM radio.
Originally intended as a radio promo, the album was an uneasy mix of live recordings of Newman’s piano and shaky vocals, with bombastic Spector-ish instrumental overdubs that didn’t really fit. Rather than overcoming Newman’s deficiencies as a performer, the arrangements emphasized them. Of the 11 cuts on the album, the initially-stripped down “I Think It’s…” is the most affecting…until the syrupy strings kick in. The album was produced by—or over-produced by—Van Dyke Parks with all his customary Americana tweeness, assisted by Newman’s childhood friend Lenny Waronker, whose father founded Liberty Records. Waronker the younger started as an A&R guy at Warner Brothers Records, and ultimately became president. During his time at Warner’s he championed a number of idiosyncratic artists—including Newman.
Harry Nilsson, on the other hand, was heralded by the Beatles as their favorite singer (and years later, John Lennon and Nilsson’s drunken escapades became the stuff of legend and dismay). His intensely-chipper early records proved that his label, RCA, didn’t know quite what to do with their amazing boy tenor—and then in 1969, Nilsson came to prominence with his cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, featured in the movie Midnight Cowboy. And then, as the saying goes, everything changed.
Following the ironic success of “Everybody’s Talkin'”—ironic because both Neil and Nilsson were singer-songwriters, and the hit utilized only half the talents of each— Nilsson was given the freedom to make whatever, which RCA undoubtedly hoped would yield a mega-hit.
The result was Nilsson Sings Newman, and while it was not a hit, it was a work of great worth; Stereo Review named it their Album of the Year. The hit would come a year later in the form of 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, which yielded another cover hit with Badfinger’s “Without You”, the novelty hit “Coconut”, and “Jump Into the Fire”, notable for Herbie Flowers’ subterranean bass solo (Flowers also played the double-tracked bass on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”).
But I digress.
The 10 tracks of the original release of NSN range from the silly (“Yellow Man”, “The Beehive State”) to the sweetly nostalgic (“Caroline”, “Vine Street”, “Dayton Ohio 1903”), to the plaintively wistful and melancholy (“Cowboy”, “Living Without You”). Where Newman’s versions of the same songs often seemed throw-away and sardonic to the point of bitterness, Nilsson’s versions were contemplative and tempered the edge of the lyrics with sweetness and restraint. Rather than lessening the effect of Newman’s lyrics and often-mournful melodies, Nilsson’s careful, balanced handling emphasized their inherent humanity, which Newman often seemed determined to deny.
For those who only knew Nilsson from “Everybody’s Talkin'”, NSN could be either revelation or disappointment. Nilsson’s vocals on the album are quietly spectacular, displaying his artful phrasing and tremendous range without, somehow, being showy. Newman is, as always, Newman; his songs here feature the combination of arch observation and Copelandesque nostalgia that would become his trademark, particularly in his film scores. The style is not for everyone, especially if the only previous acquaintance with Newman’s work is through what I think of as Newman Lite, his later family-friendly film work such as Toy Story. It is more a collection of lieder, art songs, rather than pop songs, despite the many memorable, hummable melodies .
Nilsson said that Newman was bored once his piano tracks and Nilsson’s basic vocals were laid down: “[he was] tired of the album when we were finished making it. For him it was just doing piano and voice … over and over.” Nilsson said that “once I got the take down, I knew what I was going to do with it later. He didn’t.” And what Nilsson did was overdub as many as 118 harmonies on the cuts. Remarkably, the effect was to enhance the songs, not overwhelm them or spotlight them as in-studio assemblages.
I don’t know what else to say. The album will either appeal or it won’t. It’s not the sort of showy, overwhelming work that would work well in 3-minute AM radio snippets; it’s a slow burn that rewards repeated listenings with gentle satisfaction and admiration of its artful restraint. It’s certainly not an audiophile spectacular, and the original Dynaflex pressings were often warp-prone and noisy.
It’s an odd thing to say, but I think of the album as a friend. As in the case of any long-term friendship, I can not encounter it for years, and then immediately pick up the conversation with it as though we had seen one another every single day.
I can’t think of any higher praise than that.
[ Fun fact: the album’s surreally nostalgic cover was by Dean Torrence, better known as half of Jan & Dean. Torrence had dozens of album cover credits during the ’70’s and ’80’s, often listed as his corporate entity, Kitty Hawk Graphics.]