Friday, April 30, 2021

Nilsson 1: Spotlight On Nilsson

Harry Nilsson was always something of a cult artist, the type of guy who had lots of fans in the business, even when he didn’t sell records. He never toured, and his live appearances were limited to presenting on awards shows. He began as a songwriter, yet the songs he’s arguably known best for were written by other people.
But he also had quite a voice, and a wide range, so he managed to record some singles for a Capitol Records subsidiary that didn’t remotely overspend on graphic design. Both sides of each of those singles, plus two other songs recorded during that period, were collected on Spotlight On Nilsson, which wouldn’t gain any real attention until it was reissued multiple times after he became a big name, and even then not by much. (He didn’t have the face of a teen idol anyway.)
With ten songs coming in at a whopping 22 minutes, the album barely hints at his potential, but even buried under the generic ‘60s production, his voice is recognizable. Well, most of the time; “The Path That Leads To Trouble” sports a growl similar to that of Sonny Bono, who likely worked with Harry on some Phil Spector sessions. “Good Times” would be offered to the Monkees, though they wouldn’t finish it for 50 years. “So You Think You’ve Got Troubles” serves up a wonderful litany of ailments, very much in the vein of future humorous Nilsson tracks, but it’s a cover of a little-known country song. “I’m Gonna Lose My Mind” dabbles in R&B, right down to the Raelettes-style singers mixed just as high as he is. “She’s Yours” crams a lot of tempo changes and dynamics into two minutes.
A startlingly rearranged “Sixteen Tons”, go-go style, nearly renders the song unrecognizable, but it wouldn’t be the last time he’d tinker with a standard. A similar arrangement pins “Born In Grenada”, wherein we’re supposed to buy that he’s from Mississippi. “You Can’t Take Your Love (Away From Me)” is a forced title nowhere near as good as the “think about the good times” bridge, but he was still learning. Presented lullabye-style, “Growin' Up” sounds more like the sophisticated pop he’d develop soon enough, but “Do You Believe” is more generic soul.
Spotlight On Nilsson is a mere taster for a career that would go in several directions, but even from the start, he was set on using just the surname. It’s available for streaming, or you can search for an obscure CD that pairs the tunes with a John Stewart album from four years later called Willard, the title track of which, sadly, is not related to the film about a man obsessed with rats.

Nilsson Spotlight On Nilsson (1966)—2

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