Sunday, 1 December 2013

Laura Nyro - The Early Albums

A little while ago, after my first substantial acquaintance with the music of Laura Nyro, I wrote a blog post about this important and much missed singer-songwriter. I have now made another attempt at an appraisal of her early records....

In common with many people I will have arrived at the debut record first, by virtue of it containing several of Laura’s best-known songs. Originally released in early 1967 as “More Than A New Discovery”, and then re-released and re-packaged a few years later as “The First Songs”, it is a supremely confident and well-crafted work.  

A common view is that this album is excessively poppy and commercial, and unrepresentative of what followed. Yes, people who are introduced to her work via “The First Songs” might be in for a shock when they explore the more edgy and experimental music which she made in the subsequent few years, but that is not to say that the contents of this debut are totally divorced from the rest of her output.  Several of the compositions (“He’s A Runner”, “Buy and Sell”,”Lazy Susan”) definitely signal the way ahead.

Actually, I would argue that her sophomore effort, “Eli And The Thirteenth Confession”, is not that radical a departure from its predecessor.  The compositions and arrangements have simply become more uniformly and consistently adventurous.  More rough edges are left in, and there is less of the lushness which characterizes the first record.  ”Eli” is less easy listening, and makes greater demands on the listener’s attention and patience, as more layers are there to be unpeeled and the subject matter becomes more original and daring.  Not that the debut is overly conservative, but there is a real feeling of liberation, and removal of the shackles here.  Less immediately accessible yes, but still evolution rather than revolution?

There are real signs on this second LP of the things which became so influential on the female artists who followed.  Another thing worth mentioning at this point is just how fresh and contemporary these records still sound in the 21st century.  This is due to the production, the mixture of styles and influences and the lyrical topics explored.

Once any initial reservations are overcome, the complexity and ambition of tracks such as “Timer”, “Sweet Blindness” and “Eli’s Coming” are truly exhilarating.  Some songs have a suite-like quality (the stunning “Emmie”, for example), embracing several shifts in tempo and mood. Luckily, we can come down to land with the warmth and reassurance of “Stoned Soul Picnic”.  In general there is much more dynamism, stridency and punch to these songs.

Laura’s vocals on “Eli And The Thirteenth Confession” are more varied and less “safe”, and her versatility more on display.  This is part of the fascination.  The singing might not always be as conventionally “pretty” as on the first album, but it is great fun trying to predict what direction she will move in next during each track!  Sometimes the songs threaten to go out of control, but they usually return to base, before veering off somewhere else interesting. After listening to “Eli” I am left marveling at the self-confidence, talent and commitment of one so young at the time…

Because of its aura of cohesion, “Eli and The Thirteenth Confession” almost feels like a concept album. Its follow-up “New York Tendaberry” comes closer to justifying that epithet.  Dark, moody, uncompromising and evocative – just a few of the words to describe it.

“You Don’t Love Me When I Cry” sets the tone.  We are now firmly into what would shortly be dubbed “singer-songwriter” territory.  Almost a genre in itself, rather than borrowing from various other styles.  The arrangements are sparser, consisting mostly of piano and selectively deployed strings.  It is also noticeable that the vocals are projected more prominently, but also more coherently.

The whole thing holds together impressively as a piece, by dint of the continuity between tracks, and the stability of the piano/vocals foundation. Clever use is also made of “light and shade”, quiet delicate passages being interrupted by more exuberant and animated moments, often with dramatic effect.  The directness and clarity of vision (and sound quality) make this a very intimate listening experience.

As already mentioned, the piano playing serves to anchor the songs, and because embellishments are used sparingly, they have additional impact when they do appear. This is true of the brass section on this record, which is quite striking in places.

Of other tracks, “Time and Love” is an invigorating gem, the harmonies both soothing and mesmeric. It is noteworthy how those Laura Nyro songs which became hits for others sound so much more interesting and profound in her own capable hands.  This is the reverse of what often occurs in the music world…

Even more so than the second effort, “New York Tendaberry” is an emotionally demanding (even draining!) collection, but an absorbing and captivating journey.

The last of the quartet is “Christmas and The Beads of Sweat”.   Parts of this record are arguably even more introspective and ethereal than “New York Tendaberry”, with a shroud of eeriness.  There is more focus on challenging and sensitive topics of concern, and the tone is perceptibly bleaker. Another hallmark of these albums is Laura’s reluctance to take the easy option, and her willingness to push boundaries, in order to get the message across.

The spared-down arrangements permit the vocals and melodies to breathe and shine through.  I detected in some respects a return to the flavour of “Eli and The Thirteenth Confession”, with emphasis on piano, and soulfulness. Intricate vocal harmonies and complex song structures are to the fore, as exemplified by “Blackpatch”.  The glittering supporting cast of musicians appearing on these tracks is perhaps testimony to Laura’s burgeoning reputation among her peers.  However, even Duane Allman’s virtuosity on “Beads of Sweat” is insufficient to overshadow Laura’s sheer presence and inventiveness!

To listen to these albums is to witness the flourishing of a unique talent, whose own releases may not have achieved massive commercial success, but whose work remains as compelling and vital now as it was then.  It is heartening to see how much interest and affection there remains for Laura’s music.  These are not just songs, but musical and emotional statements  imbued with a real sense of theatre and occasion, and delivered with passion and ingenuity.

1 comment:

  1. Laura was somewhat hand cuffed by the stodgy suits at verve on "New Discovery"(she wasn't even allowed to play Piano on her own debut album). But her Gorgeous voice, and pure Love for the Music shone through brilliantly. It's a true Classic, despite the meddling of the label brass

    She had much more creative control at Columbia, on the "Eli" album, and the results speak for themselves. As soon as I heard Laura's original versions of "Eli's comin'", and "Stoned Soul Picnic", I forgot all about the 5th Dimension, 3 Dog Night, and anyone else who ever undeservedly got way more radio play with her songs than she did. Great Artists all, but NO ONE plays Nyro songs anywhere near as great as Nyro herself did, she is awesome!

    I hope you give her "Post hiatus" albums a chance as well - "Nested" blew me away, and it's tied with "Eli" for my all time fave record by her.