With the LPs "Pandemonium Shadow Show" (October 1967), "Aerial Ballet" (June 1968) and "Harry" (July 1969) under his album belt and hits like "Everybody's Talkin'" from the smash movie "Midnight Cowboy" and “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City” endearing him to anyone and everyone – Brooklyn’s Harry Nilsson then took a sharp left turn for his next project. He ups and makes a smart musical choice - giving the then relatively unknown RANDY NEWMAN a whole album of cover versions. But it turns out to be a commercially disastrous pick – almost stalling his career.
"Nilsson Sings Newman" by NILSSON was released in the USA January 1970 on RCA Victor LSP-4289 in Stereo only (March 1970 in the UK) and was received with rave trade reviews and almost total public indifference (it didn't go Top 100 in either the UK or the USA). The premise is simple - a whole LP of Randy Newman songs - most old - some new - and with the great Author himself guesting on Piano on every song - Harry Nilsson at the microphone throughout.
It's cliché I suppose to say that some records deserved a better fate - got overlooked. But in the sunny pre-Brexit honeymoon days of June 2016 and with the benefit of hindsight and nearly five decades – this is one of those lost records that absolutely demands your attention. One reviewer has described this album as 'beautiful' - and that's both accurate and apt. But I'd go further - there are songs on this LP like "Caroline" and "Living Without You" where the combo of Nilsson's voice and arrangements sided by Newman's trademark low-key piano notes produces something bordering on sublime. Both written especially for the album - "I'll Be Home" and "Caroline" are in my all-time Top Ten cover versions - with Nilsson's delicate takes on The Beatles 'White Album' ballads “Blackbird” and "Mother Nature's Son" lagging not far behind.
But some reissue history first: after a February 1989 RCA fuddle on the new fangled format (ND 90305) - the first decent CD remaster came in July 2000 from the USA on Buddah 74465 99703 2 (Barcode 886972493527) - a CD that boasted five previously unreleased outtakes/alternate versions.
That stand-alone disc is still widely available - but I'd advise going for the album within the NILSSON "The RCA Albums Collection" RCA/Legacy 17-Disc Box Set from July 2013 (Barcode 886979155022). It offers the same line-up - the original 10-track LP from 1970 and those five bonus tracks - but this time the liner notes claim it's been newly remastered for that set by an Audio Engineer hero of mine - VIC ANESINI. He did the Remasters at Battery Studios in New York – and he's a name I've sung the praises of before. Anesini has handled very prestigious SONY catalogue – Elvis Presley, Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carole King, Janis Joplin, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Santana, Paul Simon, Mountain, Lou Reed, Roy Orbison and The Jayhawks to name but a few. Clean – full of presence and warmth – this thing is a joy to listen too – mostly piano and lead vocals with some overdubbed voices and other keyboards. Beautiful. Let’s get to the music...
1. Vine Street
2. Love Story
3. Yellow Man
6. The Beehive State [Side 2]
7. I'll Be Home
8. Living Without You
9. Dayton, Ohio 1903
10. So Long Dad
Tracks 1 to 10 are the album "Nilsson Sings Newman" - released January 1970 in the USA on RCA Victor LSP-4269 and March 1970 in the UK on RCA Victor SF 8166. Produced by HARRY NILSSON - Nilsson sings and RANDY NEWMAN plays Piano. Other musicians not credited.
12. Love Story (Alternate Version)
13. Cowboy (Alternate Version)
14. I'll Be Home (Alternate Version)
15. Living Without You (Alternate Version)
Tracks 11 to 15 first appeared as 'Bonus Tracks' on the 2000 CD reissue of "Nilsson Sings Newman"
"Vine Street" was first aired by Van Dyke Parks on his December 1967 LP "Song Cycle" - whilst five songs "Love Story", "The Beehive State", "Cowboy", "Living Without You" and "So Long Dad" first showed on Newman's June 1968 debut album "Something New Under The Sun" on Reprise Records. He would tackle "Yellow Man" himself on his 2nd LP - April 1970's "12 Songs". The rest were written for the album. "Vine Street" opens with a great bopping tambourine followed by clever layered vocals - but soon settles into a different 'that's a take' slow pace. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time but I wished they'd settled on one groove or another. Things start to shine with the lovely yet weirdly sad "Love Story" with its 'you and me' chorus. That acidic social commentary voice of Randy Newman comes sailing through "Yellow Man". How many songwriters can pen lyrics like "...eating rice all day...while the children play...you see he believes...in the family...just like you and me..." and still sound like he's slagging off the rednecks who would put down any colour or creed that isn't white.
I can't be rational about "Caroline" - I was mesmerised by it 46 years ago - and not much has changed. The way he arranges it - the melody - the gorgeous delicate layering of the vocals - not intrusive strings to syrup up proceedings. I could never understand why RCA didn't pick this masterpiece as a 45 on either side of the pond (no 7" singles off the album). A lonesome chill wind brings in Nilsson's voice in "Cowboy" but then he adds others vocal layers - and along with Newman's sweet piano playing - it aches. Politics rears its ugly head again in the Kansas Farmer song "The Beehive State" where locals are getting shafted again by silver tongues from Utah in slick suits and cars that can get away fast once they've made all those false promises. Another beauty is "I'll Be Home" - a song that almost feels like a Prayer rather than a love song. "When you're felling down and need some sympathy...and there's no one else around to keep you company...you can count on me...I'll be home..." Many feel "Living Without You" may well be one of Nilsson's best undiscovered-moments - a gorgeous ache floating through those polite and softly pressed piano notes. You just 'know' this man is dying inside - 'so hard' living without you. It ends on a double set of goodies - the friendly neighbours and simpler times of "Dayton, Ohio 1903" and the goodbye to all that loss of "So Long Dad".
The incredibly bleak outtake "Snow" is ropey audio-wise (not a madly great song either) - but its cool to hear Newman and Nilsson both talk and note that the ending was 'bad' as the songs fades out. The following four 'Alternate Versions' are fabulous stuff - beautiful clarity and each carrying real vocal differences between them and the released versions. At 2:18 minutes the Alternate of "Cowboy" is shorter than the released take of 2:58 minutes - but still feels epic for its short duration. Both "I'll Be Home" and "Living Without You" feature a floating organ that hurts - Nilsson trying out different vocal approaches towards the end of each song ("I'll Be Home" has dialogue between Newman and Nilsson at the close). These are Bonus Tracks actually worthy of the moniker.
I know it's a lot of money to buy "The RCA Albums Collection" to access just one NILSSON album (even if the Audio is fabulous). But of course there's so much more on offer in there - an embarrassment of riches really (and unfortunately some embarrassments in the later albums - see my separate review).
NILSSON was an extraordinary talent and apparently legend has it that RANDY NEWMAN and he fought over the arrangements and numbers of takes needed - to the point where the album and their collaboration didn't seem like such a good idea anymore. Whatever is true - "Nilsson Sings Newman" is an overlooked car-full-of-tunes LP that cries out to be driven again. "Without You" - don't be without this...