Could have sworn I uploaded NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN once before. In any case, here’s the two-fer comp HARRY and SINGS NEWMAN. They compliment each other well, but when are we going to get some serious reissues of Nilsson’s stuff? I’d kill for a Big Star-type Rhino box set! -Ian!
Ironically, Harry is where Harry Nilsson began to become Nilsson, an immensely gifted singer/songwriter/musician with a warped sense of humor that tended to slightly overwhelm his skills, at least to those who aren’t quite operating on the same level. This aspect of his personality surfaces partially because the record is a crazy quilt of originals, covers, bizarre Americana, quiet ballads, show tunes, and soft-shoe shuffles. It doesn’t really hold together, per se, due to its lack of focus (which, if you’re a cultist, is naturally the reason why it’s charming). Due to the sheer number of shuffling nostalgia trips, it seems as if Nilsson is attempting to sell the entire album on personality and, to anyone who isn’t converted to his unique perspective, these may the moments that make Harry a little difficult to take, even with songs as expertly constructed as the delightful “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore,” an attempt to ape Randy Newman’s Tin Pan Alley style. Then, there are the songs that really work, such as the sardonically cute “The Puppy Song,” the gentle “Mournin’ Glory Story,” and “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” a thoroughly winning folk-rock song he wrote for Midnight Cowboy but which was rejected in favor of “Everybody’s Talkin’.” These are the moments that deliver on the promise of his first two records, while the rest suggests where he would go next, whether in the immediate future (a cover of Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear”) or several years later (the weird in-jokes and insularity of portions of the album, which would become his modus operandi as of Nilsson Schmilsson).
Named Stereo Review’s album of the year (and, really, can you ask for a better endorsement than that?) upon its release and generally regarded as the album that introduced Randy Newman the songwriter to a wide audience, Nilsson Sings Newman has gained a reputation of being an minor masterwork. This, in a way, is misguiding, since this isn’t an obvious record, where the songs are delivered simply and directly. It’s deliberately an album of subtle pleasures, crafted, as the liner notes state, line by line in the studio. As such, the preponderance of quiet piano-and-voice tracks (featuring Newman himself on piano, Nilsson on vocals) means the record can slip away upon the first few listens, especially for anyone expecting an undeniable masterpiece. Yet, a masterpiece is what this is, albeit a subtle, graceful masterpiece where the pleasure is in the grace notes, small gestures, and in-jokes. Not to say that this is devoid of emotion; it’s just that the emotion is subdued, whether it’s on a straightforward love song (“Caroline”) or a tongue-in-cheek tale like “Love Story.” For an album that introduced a songwriter as idiosyncratic as Newman, it’s only appropriate that Nilsson’s interpretations are every bit as original as the songs. His clear intonation and sweet, high voice are more palatable than Randy’s slurred, bluesy growl, but the wild thing is, these versions demand that the listeners surrender to Nilsson’s own terms. He’s created gentle, intricate arrangements of tuneful yet clever songs, and as such, the album may be as much an acquired taste as Newman. Once you’ve acquired that taste, this is as sweet as honey.
-Stephen Thomas Erlewine, allmusic.com
Harry Nilsson-HARRY / NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN (1969 / 1970)