Thursday, July 21, 2011

CD reviews: Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson
Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)
Son of Schmilsson (1972)
Both 3 stars

Harry Nilsson’s been dead closing in on 18 years now, and that’s a shame. His music was good, interesting and damned addictive, but very little of it was groundbreaking.

The guy had a knack for crafting hook-y pop songs.

He had big hits with “Everybody’s Talkin” and “Without You” (neither of which he wrote) and a few others. Nilsson also had a sense of humor that was obvious with even the most topical look at his catalogue: “Coconut,” “Joy” “Jump Into the Fire” and “Spaceman” got a lot of airplay but none of them had much of a message to them.

His like of critical accomplishment is overshadowed by the fact that commercially he did very well, and it also didn’t hurt that The Beatles, and especially John Lennon, worshipped the guy. In fact, Nilsson and Lennon were raging drinking buddies during the early 70s in LA. Nilsson’s other dubious claim to fame is that he owned the London flat where both Mama Cass Elliot and Keith Moon died. Top that for weird trivia.

Nilsson had a few other hits: “Best Friend,” from the TV show “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father;” a huge hit for Three Dog Night called “One;” and stuff he did from a 70s children’s movie, “The Point.”

For many fans like me, however, this early 70s two-album stretch was his best consistent work. For a pre-teen, perhaps some of the appeal was in lyrics from songs like “Take 54” with its innuendos and the refrain “I sang my balls off for you, baby” or the followup line from “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“so fuck you”) that could never fail to charm an adolescent boy. Throw in the comic dialogue interspersed on “Son of Schmilsson” as well as the lyric “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed.” And you’ve got something that people of that time likely still remember. But as far as depth, maybe this is why Nilsson if he is remembered at all is as sort of a footnote.

That’s sad, because his stuff is pretty good. Not everything has to be Dylan.

The first three songs of “Nilsson Schmilsson” are fun throwaways typical of his style… “Gotta Get Up” is about going to work, “Driving Along” is a nice followup about perhaps a weekend road trip. “Early in the Morning” is next and it’s pure silliness. I love them all.

Side note: Regarding the album cover art, I’ve always wondered if the notorious party-boy Nilsson, shown in a robe, is holding a hash pipe. Anyone have any idea? I’ve never seen this addressed.

Next up on the album is one of the best cuts, “The Moonbeam Song.” It’s got a languid tone to it and ends with a very Beatles-esque outro that somewhat mirrors “Strawberry Fields.” It remains a highlight to this day.

“Down” is a piano-driven rocker up next that closed the album “side” (ah, albums) but I always found it a little so-so.

The second half begins with what was probably his biggest hit, the lost love lament “Without You.” Nilsson didn’t write this one, either. But he did write the next song, the goofy “Coconut” which perfectly encapsulates Nilsson’s love of the silly. “Let the Good Times Roll” is next, and unmemorable. But the next effort, “Jump Into the Fire” remains a pretty exhilarating rocker. A mid-song drum frenzy from Jim Gordon highlights the song, as well as a pretty jaunty bass track laid down by Herbie Flowers. This was a huge, huge song in its time and one thing I remember was that when “Quadrophonic” sound was being pushed on the world, this song was often used as a demo.

A mellow love song, “I’ll Never Leave You” ends the album.

The next time we heard from Harry Nilsson, “Take 54” opens with a bleating sax played by Klaus Voorman (an old Beatles buddy from their Hamburg days) and Nilsson’s anguished pleas to a bitchy muse. It’s hilarious and unforgettable, though (also) completely silly.

Nilsson’s next song has gotten some extended shelf life because it’s really pretty and touching. “Remember Christmas” is a sweet, sweet song. Nilsson’s vocals sound so heartsick and earnest that it’s hard to listen to this song without getting a little misty. His family life apparently was pretty difficult and knowing that makes listeners understand and share the pain that the holidays sometimes elicit.

In fact, reviewing this period makes me wonder if Nilsson himself didn’t consciously pour his heart out then deliberately change the subject with some outrageous joke song like the next one, “Joy.” After all, it’s extremely common for people to try and salve their pain with a sense of humor. Tears of a clown and all.

“Joy” is a country-tinged goof. In fact, the entire rest of the album is kind of a goof. “You’re Breaking My Heart” couldn’t get airplay because of the F word (guess no one knew that they could emulate Cee Lo Green and make the F = Forget). “Spaceman” was amusing, and got tons of airplay. Keep in mind that this was the height of the moonshot era and space was a fair topic for music (Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man” for example).

Three songs later is my favorite from the album, “Ambush.” In 1972 everyone was still rightfully freaked out about all the shit going down in Vietnam. Leave it to an unstoppable jokester like Nilsson to find a laugh in a song about something awful. A patrol is slogging through a war zone and the group starts singing. Hey, a catchy tune is hard to resist, so the soldiers all cut loose… and in losing themselves in the music, wander into an ambush:

“But by the time we stopped the song,
The enemy had opened fire.
Now, we ain't gonna sing that song no more
Ain't gonna sing that song no more.

Just don't pay to sing no more

Especially when you're in a war.”

The last two songs are “I’d Rather Be Dead” which in addition to having ridiculous lyrics has a choir of what sounds like retirees on backup. A full orchestra joins in on the last song, “The Most Beautiful World in the World” in which Harry uses gargling as a musical instrument and feels up Mother Nature. Yes, really.

The whole album is a lot of fun, including the short comedy bit between “Take 54” and “Remember Christmas” and a second one between “The Lottery Song” and “At My Front Door.”

Peter Frampton, who would become a global icon in a couple of years, played on 7 of the album’s 11 songs.

I gave both of these 3 stars because they’re technically strong, catchy and amusing. Enjoyment-wise, they’re closer to 5 stars, but as more-or-less pop-rock music, they can’t be held up to the same kind of standard as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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