wears the trousers magazine

map to the treasure: a buyer’s guide to laura nyro
January 25, 2010, 2:36 pm
Filed under: buyer's guide, feature | Tags: ,

map to the treasure: a buyer’s guide to laura nyro

These days it’s a term we all know well, but back in the late ’60s Laura Nyro (1947–1997) was among the first in an exciting new wave of artists called the “singer-songwriters”. Not only that, she was among the very best of them, imbuing her often personal, introspective songs with a sophisticated metropolitan pop/soul sheen. Nyro was a New York poet through and through, standing apart from her Laurel Canyon peers by incorporating elements of jazz, R&B, gospel and Broadway styles into her broad pop sound. To mark this week’s reissue of her 1971 sizzling collaboration with soul trio Labelle, Gonna Take A Miracle, Wears The Trousers takes a look through the entire back catalogue of this inventive, experimental and unique artist, and rediscovers why she is so well respected as one of the most arresting, and challenging, pop artists in history.

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The prodigious debut

More Than A New Discovery
Verve Folkways, 1967

[reissued by Rev-ola, 2008]

A Bronx teenager and student at New York’s High School of Music and Art, Laura Nyro was a prodigious young talent. In 1965 she sold her first song professionally, ‘And When I Die’, to Peter, Paul & Mary, and by the following year had a deal with Verve’s Folkways imprint. Recorded when she was just 18, More Than A New Discovery confirmed Nyro’s talent for exceptional songwriting but she later admitted that she’d felt uncomfortable that her naturally expansive, experimental style was being stifled and fashioned into three-minute pop hits designed for radio. She would go on to record her songs the way she wanted them later on in her career, but there is evidence here to suggest that, even when she was sticking to a fairly rigid “no tempo/rhythm changes, please” rule, she could hit wonderful peaks; ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ and ‘Stoney End’, for instance, are unrivalled pop jewels. She also reveals her marvellous jazz-tinged vocal style on the torchy ‘Billy’s Blues’, ‘Lazy Susan’ and ‘Buy & Sell’, and brings in doo-wop and gospel influences on ‘Blowin’ Away’ and ‘And When I Die’. An auspicious debut that ranks among Nyro’s best.

The purple patch

Eli & The Thirteenth Confession
Columbia, 1968

[remastered and expanded, 2002]

1967 proved to be a pivotal career year for Laura Nyro. More Than A New Discovery was brand new and attracting some industry attention, and of course there was June’s Monterey Pop Festival performance (the myth being that she was booed offstage), where she debuted a couple of new songs. Those new songs formed a song-suite that Nyro played, solo on piano, for Clive Davis and David Geffen later that year, securing her a deal with Columbia. Working closely with arranger Charlie Calello, Nyro, only 20, created a mind-boggling pop masterpiece with Eli & The Thirteenth Confession, recorded in January and February 1968. It is a technicolor gem, bringing the three-minute pop smarts of her debut to wonderful new heights with seismic shifts in rhythm and tempo, but always inventive, original and joyous. You’d be hard pressed to remain stony-faced listening to something like ‘Luckie’ or ‘Lu’, while the moody ‘Poverty Train’ and ‘Lonely Women’ presage Nyro’s subsequent work. It’s a dizzying, upbeat amalgam of pop, jazz, soul, R&B, and, in the driving ‘Eli’s Comin’, gospel styles, and an intense, exhausting, but thoroughly rewarding listen.

New York Tendaberry
Columbia, 1969

[remastered and expanded, 2002]

It’s difficult to name a more intense and involved singer-songwriter record that is basically just bare-bones piano/vocal than Nyro’s third LP, New York Tendaberry. It was painstakingly crafted by Nyro and Roy Halee, with subtle embellishments – string flourishes, brushes, bells, some brass – built around the then-21-year-old Nyro’s rubato stop-start delivery. Her voice is alternately hushed, reverent and Broadway brassy, sometimes all in one song (‘You Don’t Love Me When I Cry’), and reaches spectral screams on the murderous ‘Tom Cat Goodbye’. Lyrically, ‘Gibsom Street’ could be the most sinister and evocative song in her entire catalogue, and that brass/neo-operatic vocal section is stupendous. ‘Save The Country’, ‘Captain St Lucifer’ and ‘Time & Love’ rank among her melodic high points, with ‘Captain for Dark Mornings’, ‘New York Tendaberry’ and ‘The Man Who Sends Me Home’ wonderful noir pieces. This is the sound of New York at night, and it remains beautiful, romantic and timeless.

Christmas & The Beads Of Sweat
Columbia, 1970

[remastered by Sony Japan, 2008]

At the end of 1969, Laura Nyro was hot property as songwriters go. ‘Wedding Bell Blues’, ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ and ‘And When I Die’ had all been significant hit singles for other artists, and Nyro’s own New York Tendaberry was heading into the US Top 40 on the strength of her reputation. The following year came the final part of her wonderful ‘trilogy’ of records, Christmas & The Beads Of Sweat, which seems to merge the joyous, upbeat quality of Eli & The Thirteenth Confession with the dark, moody atmospherics of New York Tendaberry. Working with Arif Mardin and Felix Cavaliere, Nyro imbues the material with a mellower, more soulful sound, such as on her reading of Goffin/King’s ‘Up On The Roof’, and on her own ‘Brown Earth’ and groovy ‘Blackpatch’. There is also wonderful exoticism in the sensual, Oriental ‘Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp’ and raging gospel-rock on ‘Beads Of Sweat’, featuring Duane Allman on blistering guitar. Then there is the unbridled dark intensity of ‘Been On A Train’, Nyro’s harrowing warning about the perils of heroin abuse. While it doesn’t quite have the golden reputation of its predecessors, Christmas… is pretty much just as great.

Gonna Take A Miracle (with Labelle)
Columbia, 1971

[remastered and expanded, 2002; reissued 2010]

By 1971, it might be fair to say that Laura Nyro had burnt out after five years of frenzied activity that yielded four absolutely stunning records, at least two of which are indisputable all-time classics. She had taken to including “oldies” in her live sets, bringing in the soul and R&B favourites of her teen years, and instead of recording an album of new material she opted to do a covers set – in those days quite a bold move for an artist known primarily as a writer. Introduced to Patti Labelle by journalist and manager Vicki Wickham during an interview, the pair struck up a lifelong friendship and Nyro enlisted the assistance of the Labelle trio as co-vocalists on Gonna Take A Miracle. Recorded hastily with legendary producers Gamble and Huff in the hot Philadelphia summer of 1971, the album retains a raw, rough-and-ready quality, and sounds just as hot and humid as the days on which it was recorded. There is a looseness and light-heartedness here that’s absent from some of Nyro’s earlier records, though things get a little spooky on ‘Desiree’. Highlights include the handclap-happy a cappella opener ‘I Met Him On A Sunday’ and a passionate reading of ‘The Bells’.

The comeback years

Columbia, 1976

[remastered by Sony Japan, 2008]

Laura Nyro essentially retired from the music business after Gonna Take A Miracle, leaving New York City for Massachusetts (and later, Connecticut) and getting married to Vietnam veteran David Bianchini. But their 1974 divorce brought Nyro back to music and she reunited with Eli & The Thirteenth Confession arranger Charlie Calello to work on her first album of new material in five years. Sadly, Smile doesn’t possess the same inventiveness as Eli…; there are a number of good ideas at work here, but it’s perhaps the most slight of her albums. ‘Money’ is a classic, a percolating slice of funk-imbued jazz-pop, and ‘I Am The Blues’ is a sprawling jazz-inspired epic, while album closer ‘Smile’, with its instrumental coda entitled ‘Mars’, is a Japanese-inflected delight. But elsewhere, songs like ‘Midnite Blue’, ‘Stormy Love’ and ‘Sexy Mama’, while pleasant enough, lack the melodic pizzazz and passion of Nyro’s best work.

Columbia, 1978

[remastered by Iconoclassic and Sony Japan, 2008]

Perhaps the best of her post-1971 records, Nested is an album of warmth and depth. Nyro’s 1976 comeback had been reasonably low-key but she was fairly active over the intervening years with concert tours. A permanent relocation from New York to Danbury, Connecticut made its mark on her music as she switched from metropolitan jazz-infused soul/pop to mellow musings on life and love, and her growing interest in feminism and nature began to spring up in her lyrics. First and foremost, though, Nyro didn’t forget her songwriting talents. The album’s lighthearted, upbeat songs, such as ‘Rhythm & Blues’ and ‘The Sweet Sky’, recall her early work, while her voice portrays a wonderful richness on the wry ‘Mr. Blue’, the smooth, pretty ‘Child In A Universe’, and maternal ‘The Nest’. Witness also the experimental mid-section on the vaguely psychedelic ‘Springblown’ and proto-synth pop on ‘Light – Pop’s Principle’. The manic changes in rhythm and tempo that once characterised her work were, for the most part, gone, but in their stead was a newfound relaxed outlook which makes for an interesting change of pace.

Mother’s Spiritual
Columbia, 1984

[remastered by Iconoclassic and Sony Japan, 2008]

Nyro’s first comeback proved to be a short one; two months after the release of Nested, she gave birth, aged 30, to a son and retreated back into her life of domesticity in Connecticut. She slowly continued to write, and the recording of Mother’s Spiritual proved to be an arduous affair – different locations, different time periods, different personnel – all down, primarily, to Nyro’s perfectionism. Even Todd Rundgren, a Nyro acolyte, came on board at one point. The result, released at the dawn of 1984 after a break of more than five years, was the “closest” album to her vision, according to Nyro, and there is a quiet, subtle passion throughout. The songs are much mellower and softer than on her late ’60s classics, but, as with Nested, have a wonderful depth and richness. Nyro’s interest in feminism had escalated by this time, and almost all the songs include ruminations on nature and relationships from her feminist perspective. But even so, songs like ‘Sophia’ and ‘Talk To A Green Tree’ are wonderfully funky, and ‘To a Child’, ‘A Wilderness’ and ‘Mother’s Spiritual’ are all career beauties.

The final years

Walk The Dog & Light The Light
Columbia, 1993

[remastered by Sony Japan, 2008]

Another long break ensued after Mother’s Spiritual. Nyro returned to the spotlight for touring in the late ’80s, resulting in the 1989 live recording Laura: Live At The Bottom Line, but it wasn’t until 1993 that she returned with a new studio set – the last to be released during her lifetime. Working with Steely Dan cohort Gary Katz, Walk The Dog & Light The Light almost captures the spirit of the then 22 year old Gonna Take A Miracle, not in style but in feeling; it is similarly light, fun and joyful. Of course, with Nyro’s inherent interests in the natural world and feminism, there is a strong didactic undercurrent in songs like ‘Lite A Flame’, her animal rights protest, but feminine celebration ‘Louise’s Church’ is a slice of vintage Nyro soul-pop, while ‘The Descent Of Luna Rose’, perhaps worryingly dedicated to her period, is actually pretty funny. The Native American-inspired ‘Broken Rainbow’ features a brilliantly rich vocal and haunting melody, while the elegant soul of ‘A Woman Of The World’ is smooth and sophisticated. At 45, Nyro was in a free, relaxed mood and Walk The Dog… is an enjoyable, mellow listen.

Angel In The Dark
Rounder, 2001

After Walk The Dog & Light The Light, Nyro played some select solo shows with her harmony group and was in suitably relaxed and inspired form when she laid down some tracks at New York’s Power Station studios in 1994 and 1995. Sadly, these sessions were to be Nyro’s last; she was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 1995 and died, at the untimely age of 49, in April 1997, having spent some of her final months bringing together the retrospective set Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best Of Laura Nyro. Rounder issued the final sessions as Angel In The Dark in 2001, as a beautiful, soulful farewell. It’s musically most similar to her most recent studio sets Mother’s Spiritual and Walk The Dog…, but, as some of the songs are simple demos, they are, for the most part, pared down and solo. Songs like the gorgeous ‘Triple Goddess Twilight’ rank among her latter-day best, and her voice has a rich, smoky quality to it. Some of the other demos are enhanced by flashes of horns, lending an elegance to proceedings. Nyro’s glorious swansong, it’s a fitting epitaph for a huge talent sorely missed.

Pick of the live albums

Nyro released a couple of live albums during her lifetime, and a few more have sprouted since her death. The pick of the bunch is probably Season Of Lights (Columbia, 1977; pictured), which finds the artist in smooth jazz-rock mode. It’s a similar-sounding record to her great contemporary Joni Mitchell’s live set Miles Of Aisles, and with a strong cast of supporting musicians she transforms some of her most idiosyncratic work into refined jazzy performances, even though they may lose some of their edge. Laura: Live At The Bottom Line (Cypress, 1989) includes some light-hearted new songs but is unfortunately out of print.

Of the posthumous sets, Spread Your Wings & Fly: Live At The Fillmore East May 30, 1971 (Columbia/Legacy, 2004; pictured) is the only one to catch Nyro in her prime. Her voice is slightly worn and cracked, but there is no denying the fervent passion she gives her performances on this New York show, which combines favourites like ‘Timer’, ‘Emmie’ and a delirious ‘Map To The Treasure’ with some of the oldies she would record that summer on Gonna Take A Miracle.

Pick of the retrospectives

The 2000 Columbia/Legacy set Time & Love: The Essential Masters may be a decent, slim volume, but it’s Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best Of Laura Nyro (Columbia/Legacy, 1997) that provides arguably the best entry point into Nyro’s work. A two-disc set overseen by Nyro herself during her final months, it focuses mostly on her earlier work but includes most of her best, most essential material. There is an insightful interview with critic Paul Zollo in the liner notes, and it is topped off with a pair of live songs from Nyro’s well-received Christmas Eve shows of the mid-’90s.

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Matt Barton


1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

Re: Gonna Take a Miracle (GTAM) & your comment “though things get a little spooky on ‘Désiree.”
I’ll say. Accept for the gender transitions and inventions on “Spanish Harlem” every other ditty on GTAM, save “Désiree” are fairly slavish covers.

Debra J Wolstein covered Laura’s “Désiree” in the mid 70’s. I like the way Debra exorcized the “spooky.” Debra/Virgil, on June 4, 2009, on facebook.com, concerning Lauria. “Laura & Maria had to have at least tested the waters in the early 70’s for that song to have manifested in ‘71 as such a personal tribute of love and desire…because of the unmistakably erotic/romantic quality of that song (again, I agree that she re-wrote it as a subtle reference to Maria “Desiderio”) and other songs to follow…”

Listen to the song and you’ll agree.

Comment by rabdrake

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