Friday, May 31, 2019
Fittingly titled, the third Nilsson record soars majestically. Named for a vaudeville act originally performed by his grandparents, there is definitely a circus-like atmosphere woven into the grooves. The cover art depicts an old fashioned aircraft superimposed on a drawing of the artist's unsmiling visage. This provides another perspective entirely as the songs deftly perform the sonic equivalent of an Inmelmann turn, which is comprised of an ascending half-loop followed by a half-roll. Successful execution means that the pilot brings the plane to a higher altitude and pulls off a course change of 180 degrees. Listeners are guaranteed an equally exhilarating experience.
In addition to capturing that gravity defying voice in the midst of complex aerobatic maneuvers, producer Rick Jarrard pushes studio craft to its very limit. Add to this the remarkable arrangements of George Tipton and you have a veritable dream team in place. Harry brought some of his most innovative compositions to the table, resulting in one of his finest albums.
Despite the lighthearted intro, "Daddy's Song" alludes to the personal pain felt by its author, whose own father deserted him at an early age. This underscores a rigid dichotomy that informs much of content in this set. Themes of loneliness, insecurity and ruptured relationships are set to uplifting musical accompaniment. This could easily be a companion piece to "1941" from his previous disc. Wrestling with the raw emotions that come with paternal abandonment, there is the idealized version of Dad in the first two verses followed up by the reality of "the rainy day" that he left and the vow to end the cycle of sadness should he become a father himself. With its meticulously multi-tracked harmonies, this beautiful song makes for a compelling opener. In jarring juxtaposition to people who let you down comes a truly inventive ode to the workstation.
“When my heart’s on the floor I just open the drawer of my favorite guest / And what do I see but a picture of me working at my good old desk"
Melodic with a truly killer hook, "Good Old Desk" is one of the highlights in a stellar set. Curiously, many read a divine meaning into the title, seeing it as an acronym for the Almighty (G.O.D.). Appearing on Playboy After Dark in 1969, Nilsson performed the tune, telling host Hugh Hefner (with a straight face) that, "the song's meaning was in its initials." Years later, he fessed up to the fact that he was really just bullshitting Hefner and simply thought that it was a funny thing to say. In truth, there was a far more mundane inspiration for this one. Nilsson had office space at RCA and elaborated on his quiet place of work in a 1977 interview on the BBC:
"I had this little office with a desk, and a lamp, and then a couple of things on the wall and a rug. I turned the regular office overhead lights out and just lit this little lamp, and I was very comfortable there. I'd go there at night and write and there was no one in the building."
The other standout in terms of ingenuity and execution is the brilliant "One". Harry claimed that the staccato keyboard centerpiece of the arrangement was conjured while placing a phone call and getting a busy signal. His vocal is a mini master-class in dynamics, culminating in a flawless falsetto leap toward the outro. Pre-figuring Neil Young by a few years, the "number" that you're doing here is a thinly veiled reference to rolling/smoking a left handed ciggie. Tipton takes a minimalist approach to augmentation, with light strings, decorative flute and a hint of harpsichord supporting that effortless hummingbird of a voice throughout. Three Dog Night covered "One", scoring a hit, while Harry's version failed to chart. Great shame, as the original here is far superior.
Aerial Ballet is notable for being a proverbial Trojan horse, as it contains Nilsson's version of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'", which would sit virtually unnoticed until it was pulled for inclusion on the Midnight Cowboy film soundtrack in 1969. In an odd reversal of fortune, while others would hit big with his songs, he would do the same when covering the work of other writers. It would earn him his first Grammy.
There is nothing resembling "rock" to be found in the grooves of Aerial Ballet. Nor does the material align with anything remotely psychedelic, flying in the face of the trends of those times. Instead, the musical underpinnings are incredibly serene, at times seeming like a throwback to a bygone era. The professional songwriter surfaces in offerings like "Don't Leave Me" and "The Wailing of the Willow" and both also tap feelings of sadness that are at the core of the lyrical subject matter throughout. Elsewhere, Beatlesque touches can be found in the story-oriented songs ("Mr. Tinker" and "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song"). Harry weaves these narratives with a sharp eye for concision and exposition of the theme, taking the shortest route possible. Your patience is never tested in spinning this wonderful disc as no cut exceeds the three minute mark. While Nilsson Schmilsson often gets the critical nod as his best work, this is an equally strong contender for that honor. It is no surprise that his contemporaries greatly admired his estimable talents. Using his voice as an instrument, backed by top class musicians with a sympathetic producer in his corner, Aerial Ballet is a high watermark in his catalog.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Seismic shifts in popular music occurred during the 1960s. Artists who stretched the boundaries of expression provided listeners with sounds that would have a shelf life lasting for decades beyond the era in which they were created. Rock as a genre had matured. With the advent of FM radio format, full length albums became statements that required your attention as opposed to one or two hit singles cobbled together with filler. Stylistic diversity and the element of surprise were a constant thread that made the material so compelling. As the decade wound down, a new musical aggregate appeared on the scene that would inspire their contemporaries and have a powerful influence on the sonic template of the seventies.
The debut LP of Crosby, Stills and Nash was a game changer.
What's more, they did it quietly.
While the principals themselves disagree on exactly where they first blended their voices in glorious harmony (Joni Mitchell's place versus Cass Elliot's pad for those placing the home game), what is not in dispute is how important the results were. The trio were all former members of high profile groups. Crosby had success with the Byrds, Stills came to prominence with Buffalo Springfield and Nash was a key player in the Hollies. All had experienced creative frustration during their time with these bands. The idea of using their own names for this new project would guarantee that each writer was given equal billing and would be free to pursue solo work, if they so desired. Ground rules in place, they began the task of crafting and rehearsing the songs that would comprise this phenomenal disc.
THRILL ME TO THE MARROW
Opening with the multi-part stunner that is "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", the tone is set beautifully. Shimmering harmonies, inventive acoustic playing, Latin flavors and shifting time signatures are blended expertly. Stephen Stills quarterbacks this one, topping his cry from the heart with a soulful lead vocal. Nicknamed "Captain Manyhands" by the others, he plays almost every note on multiple instruments throughout, with few exceptions. Stills' recently ruptured relationship with folk singer Judy Collins translates into a soaring, majestic cornerstone piece. It is nothing less than a career highlight. Just as you catch your breath from the jubilant outro, a snippet of spoken gibberish (courtesy of Crosby) leads into the sleek, catchy "Marrakesh Express". Finding hidden messages embedded in rock records had become de rigueur for those fanatics whose sleuthing was generally aided by a healthy supply of cannabis (or other stimulants). Poking fun at this with his subversive intro, Croz probably inadvertently caused many to damage their vinyl copies trying to play this backward. The joke gets funnier when you take into consideration that many were looking to East Indian philosophies and gurus to find a deeper meaning to their existence. Composer Nash gently sends up all and sundry looking for "The Answer".
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led
Listen not to what's been said to you
He scores with a melodic single, which made it into the top 30 along with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes". Graham has finely honed pop sensibilities, a knack for which would land CSN on top forty playlists with regularity. Crosby weighs in next with the serene, intelligently designed "Guinnevere". His vocal interplay with Nash is a model of economy and beauty, while the tuning he uses (EBDGAD) enhances the ethereal quality of this quiet gem. All three tracks serve to introduce you to the eclectic nature of the group dynamic and the personalities behind the creative process.
Stills provides two more acoustic-guitar-centric vehicles to showcase their spotless harmonies in "You Don't Have to Cry" and "Helplessly Hoping". The former was the proving ground for Nash to add his clean, stratospheric high harmony to that of his partners in crime. How amazing would it have been to be in the room when he listened intently to the first pass and then provided the missing piece to what would become their signature sound. When you have singers that are this talented, why pile on layers of augmentation? "Helplessly Hoping" is pure, alliterative magic and would remain a staple of their set-lists for years to come.
"Wooden Ships" boasts a brilliant, anti-war tale with Stills and Crosby each taking a lead role from the prospective of characters who are survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Written with Paul Kantner, the narrative ingeniously has the post-apocalyptic group escaping the fallout zone by boat to start a new civilization.
Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cries
Stare as all human feelings die
We are leaving you don't need us
This is one of the handful of selections that have a full band arrangement (meaning Stills plays everything with Dallas Taylor on drums). The sleeper cuts are "Pre-Road Downs", another criminally underrated Nash tune with a great hook and Crosby's very fine "Long Time Gone". Crosby tends to be overshadowed by his mates as a lead vocalist, though he turns in a powerful performance. The sheer confidence that is on display in every aspect of this landmark recording is felt even today, fifty years after it landed in stores and subsequently on the turntables of millions.
Why is this such an important record?
The key is in the approach. Sharply bucking prevailing trends of the time, arrangements are stripped down to feature acoustic guitars and voices prominently. When drums do appear in the mix, they are unobtrusive and deployed to keep time. Tedious, lengthy, electric guitar-heavy workouts are avoided. The focus is rightly placed on the songs. All three composers brought only their very best to the table. Their transatlantic hybrid introduced a very unique harmonic style that inspired countless acts, setting the stage for what would be labeled as "soft rock" and permeating playlists of the early 70s as the singer-songwriter movement grabbed hold of the public imagination. They also became poster children for the Woodstock generation, due in large part to their coming out party at the festival mere months after CS&N was released. Imitators appeared, though no one managed to successfully duplicate what they were laying down. Elements of folk, pop, jazz, rock and everything in between were synthesized into something entirely fresh. Ultimately listenable, well crafted and still beguiling a half century on, this record is required listening for anyone who appreciates top class harmony singing and melody.
Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen, this LP is arguably where Neil Young discovered his true essence. Compared with some of the more elaborate arrangements found on his self titled, debut solo disc, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is austere. All of the urgency, energy and inspiration of the musicians playing together in the studio is captured beautifully. David Briggs understood the value of transferring a "live off the floor" feel directly to tape, without endlessly revisiting the tracks to re-do parts in layers after the fact. No need to over-analyze. The minimalist path to recording would become a signature in the work that Neil would produce from this point forward.
Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina were primarily a vocal group (Danny and the Memories) in the mid-sixties, cut a single as The Psyrcle (produced by Sly Stone) and made little impression on the music scene of that era. All three picked up a musical instrument fairly late in the game. With some rudimentary instruction, they began to play together. Hooking up with other like-minded players, the Rockets were born. Endless jams evolved into shaping some of their own material, penned mainly by Whitten and Leon Whitsell. They managed to produce one, eponymously titled long player. Again, it was not a raging commercial success. At this point, Young stumbled upon them. He had escaped the wreckage of the Buffalo Springfield and had his own first disc in the can. Long story short, he poached Whitten, Talbot and Molina from the Rockets.
George Whitsell: "My understanding was Neil was gonna use the guys for a record and a quick tour, bring 'em back and help us produce the next Rockets album. It took me a year and a half to realize that my band had been taken."
This new aggregation was re-branded as Crazy Horse. Rehearsals began in earnest to work on music with their new boss. What they put to tape in a relatively short period of time would be a game changer.
"Cinnamon Girl" is the perfect opener, deploying a mesmerizing riff in D A D G B D tuning. It is a short blast of pure rock and roll, with a killer hook, dual lead vocals courtesy of Young and Whitten (who takes the high harmony) and culminates in a one note solo that you could frame. Like the best work of any writer, it is marked by brevity and ingenuity. Young lets out brief burst of noise from his Les Paul as a postscript, letting the last note decay in a haze of distortion. This shot across the bow would remain a staple of his set-lists for decades. It has aged beautifully, neatly avoiding any ties to the era from which it came.
So who is this girl? In typical Neil fashion, he provided a cryptic explanation in the liner notes to his Decade collection.
"Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes, playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife."
Deftly switching gears, the title track follows with the groove downshifting to a laid back, country rock vibe. Great harmonies frame this fulsome tribute to getting back to a place where the pace of life is slower, free from hectic itineraries. Purposely open ended, the details of this idealized retreat are left to the imagination.
Everybody seems to wonder/What it's like down here...
Just as you get acquainted with the subtle charms of this tune, it fades out, leaving you wanting a little more. Definite highlight. Pulling a complete 180 degree turn, "Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)" is a simple vehicle for acoustic guitar. His keening tenor is joined here by Robin Lane, who admirably complements Young on this folky, minor key sad ballad. As he would later on with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson, bringing a female voice into the vocal arrangement brought another sonic dimension to the table. While it is a decent composition, this is one instance where cutting the running time down would have been beneficial. A minor complaint, though side one ends on both a hypnotic and gloriously sprawling note. "Down by the River" is a cornerstone piece, which would be taken well beyond the nine minute mark on stage by the Horse. The rhythm section hangs on tight while Whitten weaves simple but effective lines through Young's solos. There are no virtuoso heroics, so bass and drum fills are economic and as unobtrusive as possible. Briggs simply let the band play and pruned the end result of any glaring mistakes or uninspired sections. Another instant classic, without pretension.
Side two gets off to a slow start, flagging a bit in terms of intensity. "The Losing End" (When You're On) is a serviceable, country flavored shit-kicker, though fairly non-descript. "Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets) is a dirge, salvaged only by the outstanding violin improvisation by...wait for it...former Rocket, Bobby Notkoff. The closer snaps everything back into sharp focus. "Cowgirl in the Sand" is the majestic, long form companion to "Down By the River", yet manages to hit harder due to some truly unhinged fret-bombing from Mr. Young. Sporting a short, brooding intro, the lyric is unfathomable with a turnaround that is nothing short of breathtaking. Just to illustrate how strong this melody is, have a listen to the acoustic version found on Four Way Street, which documents the CSNY live experience circa 1970. It works either way, though it's a blast to hear Crazy Horse support Neil as he coaxes some otherworldly licks from his axe. Slamming the door shut on this timeless disc, it completely overshadows the aforementioned selections that precede it on the second side.
While this stunning artistic statement did not fly up the charts when it was initially released back in '69, it sold respectably and made a lasting impression on his contemporaries. Listeners were put on notice. Young found both his aural template and sympathetic co-conspirators to help bring his unique vision to life. It is remarkable how fresh this music sounds a half century later. If you dig Uncle Neil, dust off your vinyl copy and have a loud 50th anniversary celebration.