Peter Wolf and the Houseparty 5 – “You’re Breaking My Heart” (1995)

December 5, 2018 at 6:39 pm (Harry Nilsson, Music)

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Harry Nilsson – “Daybreak” (Promo – 1974)

November 26, 2018 at 6:37 am (Harry Nilsson, Music)

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“Flash Harry”

November 25, 2018 at 8:56 am (Harry Nilsson, Music, Poetry & Literature)

Written Nov. 24, 2018…

The laughter and the craziness
go hand in hand
drunken revelry on demand
that was the man they called Flash Harry
songs for the kiddies and a few for the walking dead
the nighttime calls that inspire mortal dread
3-day benders with the wife screaming,
“when ya comin’ home?”
never knowing if you’ll wind up in the gutter or a hotel in Rome

A voice that can reduce grown men to tears
delivers the knockout blow
Saturday night’s high brings another Sunday low
the vampires of Hollywood,
madmen in tandem
a runaway train running off the rails
there’s always another good time just around the bend
though nobody knows when the delirium will end

He put the lime in the coconut
and sweetness in the sour
getting from the hangover to another happy hour
everybody’s talkin’ ’bout Flash Harry
millions know the words
but not many know the name
singing like an acrobat on a trapeze wire
from the proverbial frying pan he jumped into the fire

Blood on the microphone
demons in the closet
a gram or three before the wedding
just to steady the nerves
a love for Una that would last for all time
he could be your closest friend,
then turn straight on a dime
the boy from Bushwick causing havoc,
but allowing others to take the blame
that was the man with the unprintable name

A lovable teddy bear with protracted claws
the night owl breaking all the laws
a bottle of cognac in one hand and a grenade in the other
he was everybody’s favorite big brother
though now he’s sadly gone,
a man cut down in the prime of his years
friends recalling his majesty
through laughter and through tears
but his voice will sing throughout the ages
and this was the man they called Flash Harry.

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Harry Nilsson – “You’re Breaking My Heart” (Promo – 1972)

November 23, 2018 at 6:34 pm (Harry Nilsson, Music)

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Harry Nilsson – “Flash Harry” (1980)

January 20, 2014 at 5:52 am (Harry Nilsson, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Continuing my ongoing look back at Harry Nilsson, who has been gone 20 years as of Jan. 15th, I present another excellent review by Joe Marchese from The Second Disc, this time from Sept. 27, 2013. This review looks at Harry Nilsson’s final album, which was not included in the RCA Albums Collection box set due to the fact that the album was released on Mercury Records…

When Harry Nilsson’s The RCA Albums Collection was finally unveiled earlier this year by Legacy Recordings, many finally stood up and took notice of the gifted singer-songwriter whose art deftly blended the high and the low, the angelic and the devilish, the euphoric and the melancholy. That astounding box set included each one of Nilsson’s albums for the RCA label – in other words, his entire solo discography save one album.  And now, that final missing link is finally here, on CD to join its brethren. At long last… Flash Harry!

A series of incidents, ranging from lack of promotion to the label’s release of a “greatest hits” collection with a Harry lookalike on its cover (!), led Nilsson to sever his ties with the only record company he ever truly called home. 1977’s Knnillssonn turned out to be his final RCA album, but in 1980, it was time to greet the new decade with a new label (Mercury) and a new album: Flash Harry. Problem was, hardly anybody ever heard it!  Despite a starry array of musicians including Van Dyke Parks, Ringo Starr, Lowell George, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Keith Allison, Dr. John and Klaus Voormann, a name producer (Stax guitar great Steve Cropper) and an eclectic crop of songs, the LP was withheld from release in North America. Issued only in Europe and Japan, Harry disappeared in, well, a Flash. It’s never been reissued in any format, until now. Varese Sarabande has rescued Nilsson’s studio swansong and reissued it on both vinyl and CD, and it makes a perfect complement – indeed, a necessary one – to the expansive RCA box.

A taut collection of just ten loose songs, Flash Harry has an air of an artist not taking himself too seriously, for good or ill. Blink and you will have missed it – and given the album’s fate, this ephemeral quality is fitting. Despite Cropper’s presence as co-producer (with Cherokee Studios’ owner/engineer Bruce Robb), Flash Harry isn’t Nilsson’s “R&B album.” There are soulful elements for sure – but Nilsson, even at his most vocally diminished, always possessed a soulful tone. Cropper may have brought that timbre of his voice out on Flash Harry, but moreover, its spirited, anything-goes party vibe both stands in marked contrast to, and as a natural continuation of, RCA farewell Knnillssonn. That underrated classic brought Nilsson full circle to his ornate, early productions for the label, with the stunning ballad “All I Think About Is You” and sweet “Perfect Day” taking spots alongside calypso, rock and theatrical vaudeville excursions. Flash Harry lacks anything as beautiful or evocative as those two songs or the equally-wonderful “Blanket for a Sail.” But it has the same rollicking stylistic diversity as its predecessor of three years earlier. By 1980, Nilsson had committed himself to penning musicals for stage and screen, and those projects informed his work on the album, as well.

Join us for more in a Flash – just hit the jump!

Flash Harry is bookended by the songs of Nilsson’s pal Eric Idle, and one – the opening paean to “Harry” – is even sung by Idle and Charlie Dore. As Nilsson, circa 1980, is quoted in Jerry McCulley’s terrific new liner notes for the CD edition, “The name of the album is Flash Harry, and it’s a very ‘flash’ thing at this stage of my career to say I have people sing for me!” Idle’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek, inviting listeners to “come and share a joke or two/Come and have a smoke or two/You can have some coke… a-cola, too, with Harry!” Just as delightful is the album’s closing, Harry’s own rendition of Idle’s Life of Brian (and later, Spamalot) showstopper “[Always Look on the] Bright Side of Life.” Nilsson sings the darkly funny tune with clear affection, leading a 25-strong chorus in an inventive arrangement. As such, it’s one of the highlights here.

Two more strong tracks resulted from Nilsson’s collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, another friend. Parks had contributed the Caribbean flourishes to Harry’s 1975 Duit on Mon Dei, and Nilsson continued to record in that tropical vein on albums such as …That’s the Way It Is and Knnillssonn. Here, we get the Parks/Lowell George/Martin Kibbee “Cheek to Cheek,” an ode to a lady from south of the border who’s got Harry’s heart “on permanent loan,” and “Best Move,” by Parks, Nilsson and Mike Hazlewood of “It Never Rains in Southern California” and “The Air That I Breathe” fame. (In McCulley’s essay, Parks dryly remarks of Kibbee’s participation in “Cheek to Cheek” that “if you’re in the room when the song is being written, you’re in the copyright!”) “Best Move” makes the most of a sweet and infectious melody and a breezy arrangement, though the lyrics are tossed-off and goofy: “Don’t forget the Wesson oil and mayonnaise just in case I love you…” or “This could be the best fade you ever played… would you mind undressing while I serenade?”

A reggae groove also spices up “Rain,” the lone solo Nilsson composition on Flash Harry. Tasty guitar licks, atmospheric flute and a backing chorus waft in and out, and the lyrical concept is solid (“All I need is a bit of rain… come and take away my pain”) though the song feels a bit underdeveloped.  Nilsson brought along Ringo Starr as co-writer of the reggae-fied romp “How Long Can Disco On.” The title may be the best thing about it, however. What might have been endearingly silly (“DJ, he play reggae/And I say, do you wanna dance reggae?/She say, Oh no!  Disco!”) is hindered by a crawling tempo and lack of energy. Starr plays drums here.

Ringo’s presence isn’t the only Fab Four connection on Flash Harry, as Nilsson revisited his John Lennon co-write “Old Dirt Road.” Harry’s take doesn’t veer too far from the template established on Lennon’s Walls and Bridges rendition (on which Harry appeared). An alternate take – which first appeared on the Perfect Day publishing sampler – has been appended to Varese’s CD reissue. It’s a bit shorter and lacks the cooing female backing vocals of the album version.

Nilsson reunited with another old collaborator, arranger Perry Botkin, Jr., on Flash Harry. Botkin had returned to the fold on Duit on Mon Dei, and penned the 1980 musical Zapata! with Nilsson about the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. From their score comes “I’ve Got It.” Think Harry as Randy Newman in spoken-sung, talking-blues mode (a la “My Life is Good”) and you have an idea of what this loopy, risqué ditty sounds like. Harry is also less than angelic on “It’s So Easy,” co-written with Paul Stallworth.  Its R&B style rather overtly evokes “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” with down and dirty guitar piercing through the slithering strings. Harry name-checks himself and Stallworth on this lyrically slight slab of soul: “How do you feel when you see me/What do you see when you see through me?/It’s so good to be in you/Can’t stop myself from messin’ with you…”

Much more keenly felt is “I Don’t Need You.” Rick Christian’s heartrending breakup ballad – not the deliciously acerbic Rupert Holmes composition of the same name – became a hit for Kenny Rogers in 1981, but should have had a shot for success in Harry’s fine treatment. Its prominent piano and strings clearly recall the likes of “Without You,” and while Harry’s voice is much more frayed, it’s filled with emotion.

Varese’s CD reissue has added four bonus tracks, including the alternate of “Old Dirt Road.” These outtakes aren’t in the same pristine quality as the album itself – nicely remastered by Steve Massie – but they are nonetheless invaluable. Sideman supreme Danny Kortchmar supplies the catchy, uptempo “Feet,” with a guttural, raspy vocal from Nilsson. Allen Toussaint’s “Leave the Rest to Molly,” previously recorded by Browning Bryant, would have fit snugly on Flash Harry as would have “She Drifted Away.” This John Lawrence Agostino song has the same loping reggae vibe Nilsson favored during this period, with a jazzy saxophone and country guitar licks adding color. He even ad libs a bit of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” as the song fades. The 180-gram vinyl reissue lacks the bonus material and McCulley’s new notes, but reprints the 1980 back cover liners by Derek Taylor which are otherwise unavailable. Produced like its CD counterpart by Cary Mansfield with art direction by Bill Pitzonka, the LP is a loving recreation of the original release.

Flash Harry may not have received the same acclaim as, say, Nilsson Schmilsson – you know, that other album with the singer featured in a bathrobe on the front cover photo.  Schmilsson had the feel of raw rock-and-roll despite a high level of polish, whereas Flash Harry never coheres in the manner of Nilsson’s greatest albums. But the lighter charms of Flash Harry ensure that it, too, deserves its place in his discography, and Varese’s reissue belongs on your shelf right next to The Complete RCA Albums Collection. The resonant, quirky, and highly individual voice of Harry Nilsson shines through. So, come and share a joke or two, come and have a smoke or two, you can have some coke… oh, never mind, just enjoy the pleasures of this very Flash Harry!

Joe Marchese

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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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Harry Nilsson – “Coconut” (Promo – 1971)

January 18, 2014 at 9:40 am (Harry Nilsson, Music)

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Harry Nilsson – “The RCA Albums Collection” (2013)

January 17, 2014 at 1:50 am (Harry Nilsson, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This review of the mammoth recent Nilsson box set comes from Alexis Petridis at The Guardian, dated Dec. 19th of last year. I would love to pick this set up one of these days. It looks amazing. Too bad his final Mercury album, Flash Harry, couldn’t have been included, not to mention his later soundtrack work and his final recordings, but there is so much here that it’s hard to quibble…

Harry Nilsson always wanted RCA to make a box set of all his albums. It came too late for him to see, but it’s still a treat.

You could tell Harry Nilsson was trouble from the start: long before it became apparent that he viewed having talent to burn not as a gift, but an incitement to pyromania. If there’s an image of Nilsson fixed in the public imagination, it’s the one on the front of his biggest-selling album, 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson: a blurry shot of him looking like bad news in a bathrobe, disheveled and staring blankly into space. You can virtually smell the hangover. 

On cover of 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, the first CD in this exhaustive 17-disc box set, he seems fresh-faced – he was still working in a bank when it was recorded. The tunes are beguiling, the lyrics witty and smart: so much so that you can miss how bleak his songs were. On that album alone you get murder, adultery, divorce, a callous rejection of an ex-lover, and “1941,” which offers a view of parent-child relations of which Philip Larkin would have approved. Its followup, Aerial Ballet – home to his celebrated cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” – opens with a comedy skit involving tap-dancing, followed by “Daddy’s Song,” detailing the trauma of his father’s desertion when Nilsson was three: towards the end of it, comical voices abound. A terrible darkness appears to exist alongside a weirdly manic bonhomie. You don’t need a degree in psychology to work out that might prove a pretty dangerous combination.

As it turned out, it was lethal, but at first, the most striking thing about Harry Nilsson was the sense that he could do anything. He could write songs in his own wildly idiosyncratic style, with often only the slenderest connections to rock: in any era other than the late 60s, when a certain anything-goes climate had been engendered by psychedelia, he might have been writing for Broadway rather than recording in LA. He could sing other people’s songs better than they could, as evidenced by 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman, and performed 30s and 40s standards without a hint of irony or camp. He could not only score movies, but also come up with a theme song, “The Cast and Crew,” that set the film’s entire credits to music. He had a weird sideline in children’s songs that sounded freewheeling and joyous on the surface, but on closer examination, almost invariably turned out to be melancholy little studies of loneliness: “The Puppy Song,” “Me and My Arrow,” “A Blanket for a Sail.” He had a thing about calypso. His early albums are both dazzling and faintly exhausting. You couldn’t really blame the public for failing to keep up. His biggest hit, a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You,” wasn’t particularly characteristic: it sounds overwrought next to the rest of Nilsson Schmilsson, not least the quite astonishingly beautiful “Moonbeam Song.” He gradually lost the audience it brought him – first with a more eccentric, though scarcely less wonderful sequel, Son of Schmilsson, then with 1973’s collection of standards, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. The bafflement it caused seems remarkable now, when pop artists make albums based on the Great American Songbook as a matter of course. More remarkable still is how good it still sounds in a world awash with latterday versions of “Makin’ Whoopee” and “As Time Goes By”: the orchestrations sumptuous without seeming schmaltzy, his vocal simultaneously fragile and world-weary.

But by then, Nilsson had bigger problems than declining sales, as evidenced by a cameo appearance in, of all things, Michael Palin’s diaries. According to Palin, a night in Nilsson and Who drummer Keith Moon’s company left Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, a raging alcoholic himself, “sounding like a Sunday-school child after an outing to Sodom”. The problem wasn’t Moon, who was merely “a loony”, but Nilsson, “a man bent on self-destruction”. Clearly, it would only be a matter of time before a lifestyle that made you seem the most out-of-control person in a room that also contained Keith Moon started to affect your work.

The real surprise is how little it did. By the time he came to make 1974’s Pussy Cats, he’d managed to permanently damage his voice, and there’s something a little desperate about the way the cover plays up the involvement of his drinking partner John Lennon as producer, but it’s nowhere near as a catastrophic an album as its reputation suggests. For every boring, star-studded cover of an old rock’n’roll classic there’s a Nilsson original like the remarkable “Don’t Forget Me,” another disturbing collision of boozy geniality and anguish that picks through the aftermath of a divorce, shifting from bitterness to sentimentality, its attempts to dispel the gloom undercut by how utterly ruined the man singing “it doesn’t matter, come on get happy” sounds.

Indeed, the rot only really set in on 1976’s … That’s the Way It Is, its dismissive shrug of a title reflected in its contents: a cover of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” aside, Nilsson sounded like he couldn’t be bothered. Incredibly, a year later, he pulled himself together enough to make Knnillssonn, his only album comprised of entirely original songs, and arguably his best: the ballad “All I Think About Is You” comes wrapped in gauzy strings, the murder-mystery “Who Done It?” is barkingly funny.

Knnillssonn flopped, then Nilsson was devastated by Lennon’s murder and began to refer to himself as retired. He stopped making albums entirely, although he occasionally turned up at Beatles conventions to croak his way through his version of “You Can’t Do That” and solicit funds for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. But a massive coronary in 1993 must have convinced him he didn’t have long left. He suddenly began lobbying his old record label to release a comprehensive box set, and started recording a new album. Neither was finished when his heart finally gave out the following year. He was 52.

He would presumably have been delighted with The RCA Albums Collection, a box set as comprehensive as it gets. There’s an argument that a 17-CD set might represent overkill; that most listeners would be happy with a best-of that rounds up the hits and doesn’t require you to endure Nilsson and Lennon drunkenly setting about “Rock Around the Clock.” Equally, there are remarkably few longueurs, and plenty of great stuff lurking among the discs of unreleased material: collaborations with Dr John, a beautiful cover of Procul Harum’s “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence.” Besides, if it seems a bit much, then perhaps that’s fitting: after all, so was the man who made it.

Alexis Petridis

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Harry Nilsson (June 15, 1941 – Jan. 15, 1994)

January 16, 2014 at 9:17 pm (Harry Nilsson, Life & Politics, Music)

20 years gone…

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