Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Little Touch of Schmilsson...

For a first stab in some time at a music review, it's tough to imagine a better candidate for putting an author at ease than Harry Nilsson.

That's Harry on the Left.
In recent times, Harry's finally gotten some well-deserved recognition, but for many years he was one of those ultra-creative guys who was more a part of the pop culture unconscious than the conscious: the familiar voice of that "who sang this song, again?" guy.  Ironically, for all of the man's amazing amount of output, it's for two cover songs, "Everybody's Talking" and "Without You", that Nilsson is perhaps now best known for. Before listening to his stuff for myself, I mostly heard his name floating about in conversations with hardcore Beatles fans, which makes sense, since who would revere a guy more than the Beatles did than fans of the Beatles.  Some know Harry for his bawdy and boozy part in John Lennon's wild "Lost Weekend"period, which lasted for about eighteen months (1973-74), while Lennon was separated from Yoko Ono.

Though I have a fair cross section of his catalogue, it was Nilsson's 1973 album, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, that I most recently began listening to. This record finds Harry in the seemingly elderly part of his mature phase and quite a way materially from his early psychedelic Tin Pan Alley days, or does it?  The set list, during which one arrangement blends smoothly into the next creating an album long medley of sorts, is a solid set of standards and showtunes, and by including numbers like "It Had to Be You" and "Makin' Whoopee," Harry's heart still lies deeply with whimsy., even if it's not the childlike, pop-sensible whimsy of The Point (1971). (I highly recommend seeking out this album, or the accompanying animated special of it. An amazing delight for children of all ages.)

If you think his thumb's hot, you should see the piano after a session.
The album is not a grabber, and if you're waiting for it to kick in, you're in for a disappointing listen.  A Little Touch... seems meant for late night listening, for either a night on the balcony or for getting some after hours creative work done.  And though it features the heavily orchestrated arrangement of any number of Easy Listening records (performing just this sort of slate of songs), Harry's light touch and laidback approach to the material keep it from being the bombastic overproduced affair that many aging pop stars seem to churn out. In all, Nilsson delivers a record full of numbers with just enough of the dust blown off of them to sound airy and fresh, but not too much to lose that well-worn and familiar feel.

(If you search it out, be sure to pick up a version with the bonus tracks from the sessions which blend right in with the rest of the album, including a lovely take on "Over the Rainbow".)

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