Nilsson Sings Newman
The context: By the end of the '60s, Harry Nilsson had recorded a trio of ambitious albums that combined quirky personal stories, vaudeville crackle, and the pop sensibility of a commercial jingle writer. The Beatles were avowed fans of Nilsson's swirling imagination, he'd scored a Top 10 hit with his cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'," and the burgeoning Los Angeles singer-songwriter scene considered him a leading light. With success at his doorstep, Nilsson indulged himself a little, recording an entire album of songs by his favorite songwriter, Randy Newman, then mostly unknown. Newman had sold some material to a few big-name rock and soul acts, but was having a hard time finding a market for his sardonic pre-rock-style piano ballads. The fellow travelers met, and an alliance was forged.
The greatness: For all his infatuation with everything old-timey, Nilsson was a daring modernist—practically a post-modernist—when it came to working in the studio. For Nilsson Sings Newman, the singer had his new buddy play piano for take after grueling take, while Nilsson sang his parts over and over, often line-by-line. Then he pieced together the best snippets of multiple performances, sometimes double-tracking the vocals for harmony, and sometimes dropping in some instrumental accents. The final version doesn't sound as fussy as its process. It mostly sounds like one lone man sitting at his piano, singing so divinely that every now and then other voices and other instruments alight from above, just for a bar or two.
Nilsson's unconventional recording methods—and his high, sweet voice, so unlike Newman's mush-mouthed growl—would seem unsuited to the material, but when Nilsson sings lines like, "We'll have a kid / or maybe we'll rent one / he'll have to be straight / we don't want a bent one," it fits perfectly alongside the kind of darkly whimsical lyrics Nilsson wrote that same year for the animated TV special The Point. And Nilsson's little grace notes really accentuate Newman's songwriting. The sweep of the wind that runs under "Cowboy," combined with the brief, trippy instrumental coda, recalls the tone of Midnight Cowboy, for which Newman's version was originally recorded. Meanwhile, the gospel collage of "I'll Be Home" gives a simple song of yearning a touch of the eternal, and the contrast between Nilsson's strained voice and the insistent plunk of Newman's piano in "Living Without You" expresses the feeling the loss. Throughout Nilsson Sings Newman, the inclusion of Nilsson's instructions from the producer's booth creates a casual mood, suiting a record that's over and done in a just-right 25 minutes.
Defining song: The album opens deceptively, with a twangy guitar, shaking tambourines and lightly psychedelic la-la-las, before cutting abruptly to slowly tinkling cabaret piano, and Nilsson taking on the persona of a session musician, singing about that little number we just heard. ("That was me…third guitar.") Thus "Vine St." eases the listener into the world of Nilsson Sings Newman, by providing a familiar sound and style up front, then introducing the mode that will dominate the rest of the record. The song doubles as an homage to Nilsson and Newman's common origins in the songwriter and voice-for-hire mills, and the dissonance between the romantic reverie of the last two-thirds of "Vine St." and its snappy, modern opening establishes the record's theme: that there are pockets of nostalgia that we can settle into, even as the clatter of the now seeps in.