Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Nilsson Week: On the Jukebox with Erik Gundel

 For today's Nilsson Week installment, Erik Gundel (@EPGundel) explains why a Nilsson cover is just as good as a Nilsson original.

Editors Note: Erik Gundel's tone is kind in the article. I actually held him at gun point while screaming "IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOU THINK! YOU WRITE ABOUT NILSSON!" for about 36 hours straight until he came up with this insightful column.

I would never claim to be a Harry Nilsson fan, but nor would I attack his body of work as another Erik has done here. I like his music fine and he certainly has a great voice, as well as a great ear for melody. I guess if I'm ever moved to listen to a crooner who sings over well-arranged 60's-70's pop, I'll grab any of Scott Walker's albums from that era. (When is Scott Walker week, Domino? I could've written 3,000 words.)

It is probably saying something that my favorite Nilsson album—by a good margin—is Nilsson Sings Newman. His singing and the sparse arrangements on that record are both immensely tasteful, and he successfully conveys a deep love for the original versions (Erik Lilleby, have you heard that album?) Does this mean that I don't care for Nilsson as a songwriter? Not necessarily, but it does illustrate, to me at least, how the architecture of a well-built song can stand sturdily on its own and support the embellishments and personality of its interpreters—and that Nilsson was a fantastic interpreter. This got me wondering: how has Nilsson's music been interpreted over the years, and how sucessfully did his music withstand the embellishments of, most likely, lesser artists? I tried to represent a variety of genres here, but there were dozens of versions I omitted. If you're really interested, just Google "David Cassidy Puppy Song."

Hip-hop producers love a dusty 60's pop sample, and plenty of them made good use of Harry Nilsson's music. One of the most overt examples, and the most successful I've heard, is by Blackalicious on the song "Blazing Arrow," which uses a good deal of Nilsson's "Me and My Arrow" from The Point. As a product of the conscious-rap* movement of the early 2000's, not all Blackalicious songs holds up today, but this song is still pretty good, perhaps due to the touch of Schmilsson.

(*Editor's Note: I always refer to rappers from this era as "metaphysical rappers" and their logo will forever be Baron Davis on the 2006-2007 Golden State Warriors.)

There are few stronger arguments for sound songwriting than the ability to change the language of the lyrics and have it still hold up. Check out this take on "Without Her" by José José, here re-titled "Sin Ella." My guess: that's Spanish for "Without Her." To me, it all sounds completely natural, and boy, those mariachi horns really pop!

I was going to make a snide remark, but then the guitar solo melted my snarky face off.

Sucessful interpretation? Have you ever heard of the You've Got Mail Original Soundtrack? Speaking of, it's time for another Tom and Meg movie. What else have they got going on?

It's only natural that Harry Nilsson's soulful voice would catch the ear of a soul band or two. Harry's original version of "The Rainmaker" already has a funky beat and strong bassline, not to mention that omnipresent, patented Harry Nilsson choir that lends itself well to female back-up singers. To further add to the argument, the drum break intro to the 5th Dimension's version was sampled by tons of hip-hop producers, including Kool Keith and 9th Wonder. Music!!!!

Finally, here is a version of "Don't Forget Me" by Macy Gray. Perhaps the best compliment I can give this version is that it reminds me of Nilsson Sings Newman. Even in the hands of a highly affected singer, one who is perhaps the exact opposite of Harry Nilsson, the song shines through, due to the sparse arrangement and relatively tasteful restraint by Ms. Gray.

If you can write a song that gives Macy Gray cause for tasteful restraint, you're a fucking great songwriter. Case Closed!!!!

1 comment:

  1. The first time I heard Blazing Arrow was as PA music during intermission at an unrelated concert. Having not thought about Nilsson, or "The Point," for nearly 2 decades, it was a surreal experience for me. I could not understand why a hip-hop song was resulting in flashbacks to my childhood, riding in my Mom's Buick station wagon (with faux-wood siding and a rear facing 3rd seat).