Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #84 - Harry Nilsson - Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

At first glance, Nilsson Schmilsson is an unremarkable record, a pleasant but not too edgy slice of singer-songwriter tunes that sounds like something your dad might listen to to (an association colored, no doubt, by the fact that my dad did listen to it quite a bit when I was young.) But to dismiss this album as ordinary would be doing it a disservice. Schmilsson has hidden depths, and rewards deep listening.

The first thing one is likely to notice is the debt to the Beatles. Both Nilsson and producer Richard Perry are celebrated fans of the fab four, and that certainly comes out in both the songwriting and the production. Nilsson even confesses that when he first heard Without You, the Badfinger track he turns into a tour de force here, he thought it was a John Lennon song. But Nilsson takes Beatles-esque sounds and welds them together into something that sounds fresher and more honest than any of the solo Beatles were able to accomplish in the seventies.

Before addressing the songs themselves, I'd like to say a few words about Richard Perry. An underrated producer, in my view, who is also known for his work on terrific albums by Captain Beefheart and Tiny Tim, Perry has a taste for the whimsical that I always find exciting. In my view, it is his presence that elevates the album from good to great, with his characteristic splashes of instrumental color. Here he adds a line for accordion, here a tuba, there a trumpet fanfare, but unlike someone like Phil Spector, these additions do not overshadow the tracks behind them. Instead, they disappear almost as soon as you notice them, just enough to transform a piano ballad into something just a little more eccentric, without ever becoming cloying or overbearing. Perry's is a tasteful and sensitive touch I wish more producers would employ.

Nowhere is this sense of restraint more evident than on the song Early In the Morning, which is stripped down to only a simply electric piano progression and Nilsson's slightly reverbed vocals. It feels simultaneously stark and lush, and is a great example of how to utilize empty space and minimalism for effect.

Elsewhere, songs like Drivin' and Gotta Get Up, showcase Nilsson's strong voice and playful take on modern life, while his version of Let the Good Times Roll highlights his skills on the piano, and makes for a rollicking good time. Unfortunately, not ever song on the record is so memorable, and it does seem to peter out a bit towards the end.

I would be remiss not to comment on Coconut, a bizarre tropical celebration of folk remedies. While sometimes regarded as a novelty, it's impossible to deny the sense of fun of the song, and the irresistible catchiness of the simple repeated advice of "put the lime in the coconut". Also, it was used in Reservoir Dogs, so you know it's cool.

Nilsson's style of music is not the kind that blows me away, honestly. It lacks the complexity of the contemporary Prog Rock bands as well as the soul and attitude of the folk that preceded it or the punk that would follow. But Schmilsson is an accomplished and fun album that feels very at home on this list, and captures the spirit of a generation of hippies slowly easing their way into middle age, and there's nothing wrong with that.

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