A Meeting of the Minds
Sometimes I get tired of spitting bile about music that I hate, and cave in to blogging about something that I actually enjoy. This is one such post, and the thing I enjoy is the album, Nilsson Sings Newman.
As the title suggests, this is an album by the singer Harry Nilsson, featuring the songs of Randy Newman. The concept of a covers album might seem a little odd these days, but back in 1970 (when this album was released), it was much more common. It would be difficult to count the number of “Such-a-Body Sings the Someone-or-Other Songbook” albums that there released, way back when. Unlike many covers records, the songwriter in question was actually involved in the album’s production: Newman played piano on all of the tracks. In fact, he and Nilsson were the only two performers on the album, or so the ever-reliable Wikipedia informs me.
I imagine many younger readers might roll their eyes at the mention of Randy Newman, as they only know of him from his portrayal on Family Guy. There, he was made out to be a hokey songwriter, who “sings about what he sees”. In reality, he’s a fiercely acerbic and satirical writer. Listen to “God’s Song” and “Political Science”, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me. You’ll also agree that Newman’s singing voice is less than stellar. That’s what makes this collaboration with Harry Nilsson, with his three-octave range sing voice, such a delight.
The first track on the album starts out as an upbeat number, but after several bars, the whole thing falls apart, and grinds to a halt. Nilsson then begins a different song, thusly: “That’s a tape that we made / But I’m sad to say / it never made the grade”. Of all the ways to begin a record, this “false start”, must be the most daring. That sets the tone for the rest of the record; it’s just a bit off-kilter, all the way through.
Harry Nilsson was known for his eccentricity and his sense of humour, and you might think that would work well with Newman’s sensibility. However, Nilsson chose some of Newman’s more heartfelt compositions. Along with his darker material, Newman is also known for writing character study songs, mostly sung from the point of view of the character in question, helping to humanise the subject. With the choice of these songs, all the piano, and Harry’s warm vocal style, you could be forgiven for thinking of this is just an old-fashioned feeling album. But listen carefully and you’ll find there a lot going on under the surface.
Only one of the songs is over the three minute mark, but generally they don’t feel slight. However, I feel that some could benefit from one more verse, in which Newman could hammer home the point he’s trying to make. Overall, it’s quite a short album; even with extra tracks for the CD reissue, it clocks in at barely over 30 minutes. That’s no bad thing though, as to use a clichéd old phrase: “It doesn’t outstay its welcome”.
The production of the album is in contrast to the somewhat old-timey sounding songs. At certain points, you can hear snippets of speech, as if they’re drifting in from the control room. “Put a lot of echo on it, if you can”, is heard during one track. During another, it sounds like Newman is prompting Nilsson as to what the next line is. Nilsson uses his voice to imitate a brass ensemble at one point, too. This might sound odd, but it all works well, in context.
The recording of the album was said to be very convoluted. Nilsson demanded many takes from Newman, and even when he was happy with the basic tracks, he went back and overdubbed vocals extensively, line by line, to create layers of harmony. It’s said that Newman was never happy with the sound of the finished album, but I think it’s great.
Anyway, you don’t have to believe any of my spiel. Here’s one of the best tracks: “Dayton, Ohio 1903”…