Nilsson – “The RCA Albums Collection” (2013)

January 19, 2014 at 3:46 pm (Harry Nilsson, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Another take on this massive box set, this time from The Second Disc, dated July 30, 2013. Excellent review by Joe Marchese. Hope he doesn’t mind me reposting it here…

A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

– William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV

 He’s a pretty nifty guy
Always looks you in the eye
Everybody passing by will sigh
For Harry…

– Eric Idle, “Harry”

Harry Nilsson had the voice of an angel, and raised hell like the devil. A consummate songwriter, he had his biggest hits with two songs written by others: Tom Evans and Pete Ham’s “Without You” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” He turned The Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That” into a dazzlingly sophisticated mélange of words and music and just as easily spun one single chord into musical gold with “Coconut.” He celebrated the songcraft of Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen with no irony, shortly after making his own bid for a radio hit with “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“So fuck you!” goes the chorus). The high and the low routinely co-existed in Nilsson’s life and music.

Harry Edward Nilsson III (1941-1994) was a man of many contradictions who began his career at RCA Records with tremendous promise and ended it with considerably less fanfare, alienated from both the record label brass and his dwindling fan base. In recent years, many projects have sought to understand this complicated artist, including John Scheinfeld’s documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) and Alyn Shipton’s biography Nilsson: The Life of a Singer/Songwriter. The book’s very title seemingly reflected the author’s desire to place the emphasis not on Nilsson’s hard-partying ways, but on his art… just where it belongs. If the real Harry Nilsson might have been a man of many faces – he certainly was a man of many voices – his heart and soul doubtless resided in his life’s work. And that life’s work forms the basis of an absolutely stunning new box set from RCA Records and Legacy Recordings entitled Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection. With 17 discs, 14 expanded albums and over 50 previously unreleased tracks, it is an illuminating window into the spirited world of an artist who stubbornly stayed true to himself and left behind a body of work ripe for rediscovery. A little touch of Harry in the night – or the morning, or the afternoon – is one both fascinating and revelatory.

After the jump, we’re exploring the new box with an album-by-album look at the man and his art. Join us, won’t you?

Nilsson’s ten-year association with RCA (1967-1977) began auspiciously with the one-two punch of Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968), both of which are included in mono and stereo. It’s easy to see why John Lennon and Paul McCartney called Nilsson their “favorite group” as the young vocalist’s limits knew no bounds. He stacked harmony atop harmony on intricately arranged vignettes showing his mastery of various styles as a songwriter and a singer. Whimsy and wit co-existed as Nilsson, producer Rick Jarrard, and arrangers Perry Botkin, Jr. and George Tipton crafted soundscapes in vaudeville (complete with taps!) and bossa nova, baroque pop and folk rock. Songs like the winsome “The Wailing of the Willow,” arrestingly autobiographical “1941” (“Well, in 1941, a happy father had a son/And by 1944, the father walked right out the door/And in ’45, the mom and son were still alive/But who could tell in ’46 if the two were to survive?”) and the darkly longing “Without Her” were unquestionably original, and remain so today. Aerial Ballet included Nilsson’s gorgeous, Grammy-winning recording of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which gave the critics’ darling some commercial cachet, and a hauntingly sad little song called “One.” In the hands of Three Dog Night it became an arena-worthy rocker. They recorded it with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer (and canny AM radio instincts, let’s not forget) and obscured much of the original’s lyrical quality in doing so, but their smash hit proved how versatile Nilsson’s highly individual music, in fact, was.

1971’s Harry (expanded here by seven bonus tracks) continued the winning eclecticism of Nilsson’s first two albums, and began his association with Randy Newman.  Nilsson had never been shy about celebrating writers he admired, tackling the songbooks of Lennon and McCartney, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and others on his first two albums. On Harry, he recorded Newman’s charming and subversive “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” alongside a sympathetic interpretation of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Nilsson’s own Midnight Cowboy-inspired song, “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City.” But in Newman, Nilsson found a kindred spirit.

“The records Harry made, and the first records I made, it was like The Rolling Stones never existed,” observed the ever-sharp Mr. Newman in 1997. Nilsson Sings Newman (1970) resulted from their collaboration, with Newman on piano and Nilsson on the microphone layering multiple parts on a devastating selection of ten Newman songs.  Nilsson was wry on “Love Story” (“We’ll have a kid or maybe we’ll rent one/He’s got to be straight, we don’t want a bent one…”) and shattering on “Living Without You.”  Nilsson must have found special meaning in “Vine St.” and “So Long, Dad.” The former, also recorded by Van Dyke Parks on his iconic Song Cycle, is a clever look at a musician’s life, while the latter revisits the father/son relationship, a staple of Nilsson’s early works from the first album’s “1941” onward.  Here, Nilsson Sings Newman is newly remastered (like the entirety of the box set) and replicates the same five bonus tracks on Buddha’s 2000 CD edition. Nilsson continued to take artistic detours following this album, scoring the animated television special The Point! As presented here, The Point! includes the four bonus cuts from BMG Heritage’s 2002 reissue and adds one brief radio spot. Ever ahead of his time, Nilsson’s next project was a “mash-up” of his first two albums, and the rechristened Aerial Pandemonium Ballet – with numerous vocal and instrumental parts added, subtracted and altered – has been lavishly expanded with five songs sung in Italian (four previously unissued) and a rare live set from the BBC’s Saturday Club program, plus one remix and a radio spot. The enjoyable Saturday Club set shows that Nilsson could, indeed, have parlayed his studio wizardry into a live career, had he wished to.

Producer Richard Perry (Tiny Tim, Barbra Streisand) played a major role in the next phase of Nilsson’s career in which he shed his quirkiest pop inclinations for down-and-dirty rock and roll. On the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson, even his look had changed. The once-clean cut singer now wore shaggy hair and scruff, and was pictured in his bathrobe, holding a pipe. Perry’s studio craft became integral to Nilsson’s songwriting. The orchestra of the past had largely made way for a true “band” record with players including Klaus Voormann, Caleb Quaye, Chris Spedding, Herbie Flowers, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Bobby Keys, and Jimmy Webb shaping the songs with Nilsson and Perry on the spot. This organic approach to songwriting may have led to less cerebral material, but the new approach paid off. With the clattering rock of “Jump Into the Fire,” the novelty-ish “Coconut” and the sweeping, Grammy-winning reinterpretation of Badfinger’s “Without You” all sharing one album, Nilsson was no less eclectic, but was certainly tougher. He once told journalist Dawn Eden, “My earlier stuff had more soul, only it was more subtle.” Subtle doesn’t sell records, and the slick and muscular Nilsson Schmilsson – bolstered by the deserved success of “Without You” – earned him superstardom. Nilsson and Perry followed it with 1972’s Son of Schmilsson, with George Harrison and Nilsson’s close friend, cohort and Best Man Ringo Starr among the line-up. It was as musically diverse as its predecessor but lacked the same level of cohesion as an album.  Still, “Remember (Christmas)” was one of Nilsson’s most affecting ballads, and the infamous “You’re Breaking My Heart” rocked with fervor. As presented in The RCA Albums Collection, both discs retain the bonuses from past editions, with Son of Schmilsson adding a bit more. (Nilsson’s take on Jimmy Webb’s humorous “Campo de Encino” is among the highlights here. The song was written at Nilsson’s instigation, as he encouraged his buddy to pen more lighthearted songs.)

The sight of a long-haired, bearded Nilsson smoking a cigarette on the cover of A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night didn’t scream elegance, but that’s what this album of standards arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins delivered. Known for his grandiose string arrangements on a number of Frank Sinatra’s most dramatic records, Jenkins surrounded Nilsson’s heartfelt and frequently beautiful vocals with a lavish and romantic setting. Though the lack of any tongue-in-cheek style might have surprised those accustomed to Nilsson’s ribald side (which became more and more prevalent on Schmilsson and Son of), the album shouldn’t have been a shock. By the time of its 1973 release, Nilsson had already proven his ability to both write and identify future standards; why wouldn’t that singular voice celebrate those writers who had come before his generation? A Little Touch has been expanded with the six outtakes first heard on 1988’s A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night.

Somewhat of a dark period followed, beginning with the controversial John Lennon production Pussy Cats. Produced in the midst of all-too-public debauchery, this LP introduced Nilsson’s “new” voice. His booze-and-drugs-fueled lifestyle took a toll on a once-angelic tenor, leaving behind a husky rasp still capable of great emotion but with greatly diminished range. A clearly-strained Nilsson croaks his way through oldies like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Rock Around the Clock” with Lennon contributing thick, sometimes murky production as well as backing vocals and string charts that point the way towards “No. 9 Dream.” The heartbreaking if sarcastic “Don’t Forget Me” is among Nilsson’s finest compositions, though, and the atmospheric “Old Forgotten Soldier” and “Black Sails” show that his songwriting muse hadn’t completely departed.  Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” allowed the singer to cut loose in one of his most visceral performances. This edition of Pussy Cats adds three more previously unreleased bonus tracks (very different demos of “Black Sails” and “Don’t Forget Me” and radio spots with comedian/writer Eddie Lawrence) to those previously issued. The early “Don’t Forget Me” is taken at a much faster tempo, but Nilsson’s voice is in stronger form. The “Black Sails” demo, with a music box-esque accompaniment, is even more haunting than the album version.

The final four studio albums in the box – Duit on Mon Dei (1975), Sandman and  …That’s the Way It Is (both 1976) and Knnillssonn (1977) – are among the most misunderstood of Nilsson’s ouevre. None cracked the Top 100 on the Billboard chart, and no hit singles resulted. But, in Vic Anesini’s splendid new remasterings, each album reveals distinct and unexpected treasures. Duit, originally titled God’s Greatest Hits by a cheeky Nilsson, is most memorable for Van Dyke Parks’ amiable Caribbean flourishes and the return to the fold of Perry Botkin, Jr., arranger extraordinaire. Dr. John and Ringo join a still ragged-sounding Nilsson on an original set of loose, quirky tunes (“It’s a Jungle Out There,” “Kojak Columbo”) and throwaways (a work-in-progress “Jesus Christ, You’re Tall”) plus a couple of real stunners that creep up on the listener like the pensive ballad “Easier for Me” (first recorded by Ringo as “Easy for Me”) and the cinematic, existential “Salmon Falls,” co-written with Klaus Voormann.  A brassy, previously unreleased version of “Goin’ Down” – recut for Knnillssonn – has been added.

Parks and Botkin again contributed to Sandman, very much in the same freewheeling vein as Duit.  Alex Harvey’s “I’ll Take a Tango” kicked off a brief, nine-song set with highlights like the lovely “Something True” (with George Harrison-esque slide guitar) and the offbeat college spoof “The Ivy-Covered Walls,” on which Nilsson sounds remarkably like his younger self. He’s joined by a studio choir, however, and one can’t help but imagine how the track would have sounded with his own multi-tracked harmonies of years earlier. “Here’s Why I Did Not Go to Work Today” is a delightfully languid jazz riff with amusing lyric imagery (“If Thursday was a boat, I bet it’d sink…”).  Less amusing is the lengthy “The Flying Saucer Song,” also included in the box in a version recorded with Lennon for Pussy Cats. Nilsson voices multiple parts, and Joe Cocker makes a guest appearance on this drawn-out blend of puerile dialogue and song.  The jokey “Jesus Christ You’re Tall” was fleshed out for a return appearance, and “Pretty Soon There’ll Be Nothing Left for Everybody” is a dry word of environmental warning.  Sandman, expanded by the never-before-released funky outtake “A Tree Out in the Yard (Central Park),” reveals the singer-songwriter still capable of flashes of inspiration.

Disappointed with Nilsson’s downward commercial trajectory, RCA encouraged …That’s the Way It Is, a Trevor Lawrence-produced set of covers. Though another “Without You” didn’t emerge, Nilsson is passionate on his old friend Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” the album’s best track, and similarly moving on George Harrison’s “That Is All.” Nilsson loved Gerry Beckley’s melodic “I Need You,” a hit for America in 1972. It should have been a perfect fit, but is marred by an imperfect vocal. Novelties like the calypso-flavored “Zombie Jamboree” and “She Sits Down on Me” (about an ill-placed tattoo) should have been fun diversions but pale next to the mature likes of “Sail Away.” The album didn’t sell any better than those that came before, and so Nilsson returned to the drawing board. For his final RCA album, he crafted, unbelievably, his only entirely self-composed album.

Knnillssonn brought Harry full circle with a return to adult songwriting and deft production.  (Harry co-produced the set with Robin Geoffrey Cable.) “How can I run away from darkness at the close of day/When all I think about is you?” he asked on the opening track, a ravishing ballad which melds his voice with an ethereal children’s choir. Just as unforgettable are the charming “Blanket for a Sail” and sweet, mellow “Perfect Day” (“Ride with me, glide with me/Stay by my side, with me through the night/Ride on the wings of the angels of love/Who are on our side”). Nilsson even ventured into Rupert Holmes territory with the murder mystery in song “Who Done It?” and recalled his earliest, theatrically-leaning razz-ma-tazz songs with “Laughin’ Man.”  Touching on every style from rock to calypso to showtunes to orchestral balladry, Knnillssonn might be the true lost gem in the singer-songwriter’s catalogue. It’s been expanded with six bonus tracks including the rare single “Ain’t It Kinda Wonderful” from the movie The World’s Greatest Lover, with Nilsson again adopting his best laconic jazz delivery over Ralph Burns and John Morris’ pastiche arrangement of Gene Wilder’s song. It fits well placed alongside previously unreleased, gravelly-voiced versions of standards “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Ballin’ the Jack,” the latter two with Dr. John bringing his unmistakable stamp to the piano. “Sweet Lorraine” (the best of the three tracks) offers a window into Nilsson’s process, with Harry and the good Doctor working the song out with tape rolling. The duo’s demo session of “All I Think About Is You” is another revealing listen, as the song takes on a different, but equally resonant, quality with just voice and piano. And for comparison’s sake, you can check out an earlier attempt at “Ballin’ the Jack” on the Nilsson Sessions here.

In addition to the many bonus tracks spread across the fourteen albums, three chronologically arranged discs of Nilsson Sessions unveil yet more amazing music. So compelling is much of the material, these volumes could stand on their own as The Collector’s Nilsson. There are demos, outtakes, alternates, soundtrack cuts, and other oddities. Some of the tracks compiled have been released before – the songs from Otto Preminger’s zany film Skidoo, alternates and extras from U.K. reissues of Nilsson Schmilsson and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, some singles and Italian language recordings – but there’s pure gold in the “new,” and newly-remixed tracks. (Harry’s sung credits for Skidoo are worth the price of admission alone!)

Harry’s demos were frequently as entertaining as his finished recordings. Five acoustic songs from the famed Monkees demo session are present including the delicious kiss-off “Cuddly Toy” (recorded by Harry on Pandemonium Shadow Show and Davy Jones on The Monkees’ Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.) and the ebullient Phil Spector co-write “This Could Be the Night.” The young, hungry Nilsson plays the role of a one-man band on these tracks.

Fans of Harry’s Beatle-esque studio craft will enjoy the psychedelic “Sister Marie” (heard in a true stereo remix) while Nilsson does Procol Harum in a surprising version of “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence.” The Addrisi Brothers’ “She’s Just Laughing at Me” fits the singer like a glove. It’s impossible to mention all of the treats on offer, such as a 1970 take on The Beatles’ “Blackbird” or a 1971 solo version of “Paradise,” recorded years earlier by Phil Spector and The Ronettes. A raucous 1968 recording of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Searchin’” actually anticipates the oldies on Pussy Cats, but with the ace session pros Melvoin, Al Casey, Larry Knechtel, and Jim Gordon and Nilsson in much finer fettle. Nilsson also tears into Little Richard’s “Lucille” in an unusual 1971 recording.

Alternate versions (“Rainmaker,” “Open Your Window,” “Joy,” “Think About Your Troubles, “Gotta Get Up”) offer variations large and small. But the wholly unknown songs offer the biggest rewards. “The Family” (1967), makes its first appearance, with Nilsson supported by George Tipton and some Wrecking Crew members (Lyle Ritz, Mike Deasy, Mike Melvoin). 1968’s original “You Are Here,” with Knechtel, Gordon and Michael Wofford, feels unfinished, but is a curio from a reported songwriting challenge with John Lennon. How did the vivid Nilsson/Tipton “Postcard,” written by Brian Godding, remain on the shelf? It’s a mystery. Less of a puzzle is why “I Want You to Sit on My Face” didn’t see release until now…!

One of the rarest of all recordings here is also one of the best. Stephen Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little” was written for the 1970 musical Company but ultimately replaced by “Being Alive.” “Marry Me” eventually found its way into revivals of Company, and was even recorded – but shelved – by Barry Manilow. But its composer liked the song so much that he commissioned Harry in late 1969 to record it as a Christmas present for director/producer Hal Prince’s wife Judy. That once-private recording is included here. Sondheim’s yearning melody and incisive, ambivalent lyrics (“Marry me a little, love me just enough/Cry, but not too often/Play, but not too rough/Keep a tender distance, so we’ll both be free/That’s the way it ought to be…”) were rendered thoughtfully and persuasively by Nilsson, who expertly stacks his vocals over George Tipton’s breezy bossa arrangement. Sondheim revealed the natural musical theatre singer in Nilsson, and Nilsson revealed Sondheim, the contemporary pop composer. (Indeed, much of Company was infused with a blazingly current sound.) “Marry Me a Little” is a true gem uniting two once-in-a-lifetime songwriters for the first and only time.

Some might wonder: what’s missing from this packed treasure chest? Unsurprisingly given the personnel involved, The RCA Albums Collection has been produced with a keen completist’s eye. Other than the material which falls out of the collection’s purview (soundtrack albums, a Warner-Spector single with Cher, various pre- and post-RCA sides, and the soon-to-be-reissued Mercury album Flash Harry), the box set is veritable one-stop shopping. Collectors should hold onto Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology, the recently-issued The Essential Nilsson and the promo-only Perfect Day: The Songs of Harry Nilsson, as they collectively contain a small number of unique mixes and/or performances from the RCA era. But the various bonus tracks issued on U.S. and international issues of Nilsson’s releases have, significantly, been included here on the individual albums and on Nilsson Sessions. Dare we hope for more rare Nilsson material from Legacy? More demos and unreleased performances from this restless songwriter do still exist in the vaults. Our fingers remain tightly crossed.

The seventeen mini-LP jackets contained in The RCA Albums Collection are housed in the standard flip-top cube design utilized for Legacy’s Complete Albums series. But producers Rob Santos and Andrew Sandoval have gone the extra mile, bringing aboard Steve Stanley, of the Now Sounds label, to design elements of the packaging. Stanley has beautifully delivered, creating the box’s cover and booklet artwork plus the sleeves for all three bonus discs. These offer new spins on the original covers for Pandemonium Shadow Show, Harry, and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, and add a perfect touch of period class and authenticity to the familiar packaging style. Stanley’s work evokes the hip, trendsetting work of Dean Torrence’s Kittyhawk Graphics; Torrence (of Jan and Dean) created many of the original memorable sleeve designs replicated on the mini-LPs. Faithful RCA labels have also been utilized on the discs. In addition, Sandoval has provided brief but illuminating album-by-album notes, and the 48-page booklet contains complete credits and discographical information for each disc. Every one of the CDs has been remastered by Vic Anesini, who brings out the detail in these recordings. The early, multi-layered productions sparkle anew due to Anesini’s marvelous work, but there’s also a new preciseness to the sound of the later, less ornate tracks.

Thanks to the comprehensive RCA Albums Collection, the originality, creativity, invention and rambunctious, rebellious spirit that characterized Harry Nilsson’s best work no longer need be a secret. Messrs. Santos, Sandoval and Anesini have created a box set for the ages. “What will happen to the boy when the circus comes to town?,” asked the singer-songwriter in “1941.” The answer is right here in this box set. In his all-too-short life, Nilsson’s travelling circus took him from New York to London to Los Angeles, with a taste for adventure and a larger-than-life cast of talented and off-the-wall collaborators. One may be the loneliest number you’ll ever do, but then again, there was only room in the world for one Harry Nilsson. You’ll find all his many sides in The RCA Albums Collection.

Joe Marchese


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