Monday, August 2, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 69 - Harry Nilsson

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I seem to keep falling into the trap of picking an artist based on a novelty song, only to discover that the aforementioned track is not necessarily indicative of that artist's larger output. A few weeks ago, I listened to Beck, whose wide-ranging discography covers considerably more ground that the 1994 seemingly one-off slacker anthem "Loser." This week, looking for something fun and not too emotionally taxing, I settled on Harry Nilsson based on his song "Coconut."

It's not that "Coconut" sounds nothing like Nilsson's ever done. A lot of his songs reflect that strange, tongue-in-cheek form of humor. But I wasn't expecting the other side of Nilsson - for every humorous novelty song, there's also a sincerely emotional, lushly orchestrated pop song that wouldn't be out of place in a Las Vegas showroom. It's quaint, heartfelt, almost old-fashioned, and an interesting break from the lighthearted jokey-ness of the rest of his oeuvre.

I suppose I should stop trying to extrapolate an artist's entire career from a lone single. But, at the same time, it's kind of exhilarating to put on an album, and have it completely demolish your expectations. Some artists might be able to be defined by a single song, but most decent ones are at least multifaceted enough to pack in a few surprises.



MY LISTENING: I listened to Nilsson Schmilsson (1971) every day this week. I also listened to Aerial Ballet (1968) three times, and Son of Schmilsson (1972) twice.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I remember watching the movie Reservoir Dogs when I was about 15 or 16 years old. It was the first really violent film I had seen, and I remember the movie concluding with its bloddy finale and Nilsson's "Coconut" playing on over the credits as I tried to figure out what the fuck had just happened. As such, I still subscribe a very "what the fuck" quality to that track.

Also, Nilsson made a children's animated film called The Point which one of my friends convinced me to watch in college. I had no idea that Nilsson was also responsible for that film until this week.


Most of the critics seem to treat Nilsson Schmilsson as Nilsson's magnum opus and, after a week of listening, I'm inclined to agree with them. This album, more than the others I listened to this week, successfully straddles Nilsson's strange sense of humor with his penchant for heavily-orchestrated pop songs. Any album that can successfully segue from the lush strings of the sentimental ballad "Without You" to the quirky hangover humor of "Coconut" is a success in my book.

The songwriting is brilliant across the entirety of the album. In addition to the jokey "Coconut" and the manic "Jump Into the Fire," there's the bluesy "Early in the Morning," the peppy "Gotta Get Up," and the dreamlike "I'll Never Leave You." Nilsson's vocal abilities are impressively broad, and he can handle belting a loud anthem just as well as whispering a soft ballad.

The production on these songs is also filled with personality, from the sweet strings and ominous low brass of "I'll Never Leave You" to fiery brass section of "Down" to the layering of "Coconut." It's not just that Nilsson is using some good songs, but he knows how to cater to his superb vocal talent and bring out the best in them. Only a few times does the production overreach his actual voice.

The other two albums I listened to were not as uniformly enjoyable, but still have some great high points. Parts of Aerial Ballet were a little too childlike for my taste, but "Everybody's Talkin' " is a surprisingly mature and solid song, "One" is a modern classic, and "Bath" is as uplifting of an ending as one can ask for, highlighting Nilsson's trademark humor. Son of Schmilsson includes "Ambush" - another great use of the huskier side of Nilsson's voice - and the softer, sentimental "Turn On Your Radio."


As I said, the best Nilsson manages to find a place in between his strange humor and his schmaltz. The worst adheres too much to one side or the other. As for the schmaltz, "Without You," one of the biggest hits of Nilsson's career, is too sappy and overly-orchestrated for me, despite it being a pretty good tune.

Aerial Ballet, in particular, leans toward weird childlike ditties and nonsensical tunes. "Mr. Tinker" is too trippy for me, and the opening two tracks of "Daddy's Song" and "Good Old Desk" are too much like old-fashioned popular standards. The first half of the album has a very dated feel. Nilsson is at his best when he combines a little bit of harder rock to his overly sweet pop melodies, but he hasn't quite learned to do that in this album.

Son of Schmilsson, as one can gather from the title, is a big middle finger to the record company and fans who wanted Nilsson Schmilsson redux. While the album does have some redeeming qualities, the faux-southern accent of "Joy," the gargling sound effects on "The Most Beautiful World in the World" and the crazy discordant chorus of "I'd Rather Be Dead" lead the album too far out into weird territory for me. It's Nilsson deliberately wasting the capital he built up on Nilsson Schmilsson and its not necessarily very funny.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK: Nilsson was friends with John Lennon, and apparently their drinking escapades were the stuff of legend. My favorite story is the one where Nilsson and Lennon are ejected from a Hollywood nightclub for drunkenly heckling the Smothers Brothers.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's a lot more Nilsson albums, many of which have received acclaim, but none of which have the unanimous critical rallying cry of Nilsson Schmilsson. Still, Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Harry (1969) might be worth a listen. However, I'll probably avoid his Nilsson Sings Newman album, where he sings only Randy Newman covers. Nothing against Nilsson or Newman, but I just can't see the mix being that exciting.


With a drum solo to rival "Wipeout"!