Monday, March 8, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #4: Laura Nyro – Eli & The 13th Confession

We spend so much of our time buying, selling and listening to the latest releases that we sometimes forget to plumb the depths. Every one of us here got in to record store thing, at some level, because we have a deep interest and curiosity about all kinds of music. Most of us are collectors to some degree or another, and one of the abiding joys of collecting is to pull out the rare, beautiful, little known or downright obscure album and turn on a friend. Sometimes it's a classic that needs to be shined up and put back on the top shelf. With that in mind we are going to revive a column we used to include in our newsletters called, appropriately enough, I'd Love To Turn You On. This will give our super collectors and musical academicians to wax poetic about their favorite albums (or movie or book for that matter).

Laura Nyro was the New York high priestess of song for a few precious years in the late '60s and early '70s. Before Carole King ventured out solo and when Joni Mitchell was still a folk singer, Laura was blazing a trail, writing wild, original songs and performing with an energetic passion rarely seen in the pop world. She was a riveting performer, a fearless singer and a songwriter of genius. But, as is the case with many cult artists, the diamonds that Laura made are known to only a few die-hards. So go on and give this disc a spin – it’s one of the great albums of the 60s, by a singular talent. 

On Eli we hear a young woman singing her own songs. But that is where any familiarity ends. Laura's songs are strange. She has a blatant disregard for tempo and conventional structure, and loves tripping us up with frequent key and time changes. The band that accompanies her on this disc is obviously full of seasoned session guys, because they follow her brilliantly through the labyrinthine compositions. Laura likes to challenge and never holds back; the words are sung with a religious abandon that I've only ever heard in Van Morrison or Nina Simone. 

However it's not all crazy, and there is much here to enjoy on a casual level. If you've ever turned on a radio in the past 25 years, you'll recognize Laura's original versions of the classics “Stone Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness,” and “Eli's Coming,” which were copied almost note for note (with the edges rounded off) by The 5th Dimension and Three Dog Night. There are pop songs and heartbreaking ballads, too: “Emmie” in particular is one of Laura's most gorgeous pieces, and the influence on Todd Rundgren and Rickie Lee Jones is palpable.

Although Laura had contemporaries like Janis Ian and Dory Previn, she was essentially out there on her own, doing her thing unlike anyone before or since. Laura fused Brill Building pop, show tunes, and gospel with her own raw soul - all combined for something truly unique. She's weird, geeky, awkward, deep and maybe a little damaged. Way ahead of the curve in 1968, Laura was touching on dark, poetic themes that conjured ghosts like an ancient blues record. Laura is not one of those boring, wet confessional songwriters, so don't be afraid.

Of course, Laura isn't for everyone. Not everyone is going to feel the way I do about Laura. Some will find her shrill, others might find her difficult, annoying. But, if you are one of the lucky ones you'll fall for her, and nothing else musically will quite matter the way she does.

Elvis Costello, Elton John, Bob Dylan and Alice Cooper are all fans. Now it's your turn.

--Ben Sumner

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