Nilsson - Nilsson Schmilsson - Review
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critics' view

Dear Diary:

Wake up, slightly dazed and out of it, and just like every other morning for the last eight months of unemployment, it begins the same way. Tie on the robe, fumble for the coffee mug, the ketchup-y Bloody Mary, and the initial pipe pull, and clumsily drop the needle onto the crackly, burnt first side of the record that remains glued on my turntable, waiting for those same "Chopsticks"-esque piano notes that bang singer Harry Nilsson out of his slumber for "Gotta Get Up", the opening song on 1971's Schmilsson. He's still in his robe too, out of focus, unshaven, a hash pipe in his fingers. Harry wakes up, weary, but rouses quickly, showers, resigned to being late for the day's meetings. He's already mourning the salad days and wasted nights slowly slipping away to the high-fiber diet and working late. As the music hall accordion and tuba breathe in the evening's hiccupy bubbles and the bass bumps along with lines about a sailor's conjugal visits, we're back in the swing times of the early 70s, where the 60s' residual good times hid, trying to stay high and jovial even as the highs got slightly more complicated and expensive.

Long considered the "American Beatle" by The Beatles themselves (and John Lennon's drinking buddy during his year-long "Lost Weekend"), Harry Nilsson originally reflected them in his quirky, knowledgeable pop (and was a rumored Paul McCartney replacement) before scoring a Grammy for his delirious version of folkie Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking" that loped throughout Midnight Cowboy. As the clime of pop hardened into rock, and groups like The Beatles dissolved, Nilsson teamed up with producer Richard Perry to bolster both of their careers. Moving the party over to London, and drawing on a pool of players that would have hands on rock landmarks of the era like All Things Must Pass, Layla and Assorted Love Songs, Tumbleweed Connection, Sticky Fingers, Plastic Ono Band, and Transformer, Nilsson's rock record Schmilsson is easily the most loveable scamp of the bunch. Its success was the watershed (and all the subsequent washing out that word implies) of his career.

As spins run into the thousands for me now, new little sonorities appear in the song craft. I'll always love the way he paved over the sub-Lennon scream of Badfinger's chorus on "Without You", beyond the simplistic resignation of the original and into a cathartic, climactic release. (The Spanish version included "Si No Estas Tu" as a bonus track— the song's more Romantic lingua showcases the true force of Nilsson's operatic reading as he tremors and holds the notes.) The pounding, detuned-bass rocker "Jump into the Fire" and the similarly belted and horn-blasted "Down" define Nilsson's harder take on this particular album (the former could still burn up dancefloors), although his stab at the golden oldie "Let the Good Times Roll" humorously weaves about, drunk on its own Bacchanalian clank of keys.

My new favorites took awhile to come to the fore. One is the incredibly human— if somewhat George Harrison-esque— commuter meditation on "Driving Along". "The Moonbeam Song" is succinctly perfect, with a visual aesthetic worthy of Taoist poets: moonbeams light on train tracks, windowpanes, weather vanes, and the eye of the beholder himself. Its sweetest line is about "a fence with bits of crap along its bottom, blown by a windbeam," and as Herbie Flowers' bass slides between the luminescent clouds of mellotron, Harry catches all of the Beach Boys in his Brandy Alexander'd croon. Closer "I'll Never Leave" is sumptuous and bittersweet: a farewell to Harry Nilsson's baroque pop past with producer George Tipton. Over an aching vocal performance, Tipton swaddles Nilsson all in bells, oboes, glockenspiels, blurted brass, pizzicato'd violins, and xylophones, bidding an elongated adieu to pop's previously ornate design.

Tipton also provides the orchestration for the added demo of "Gotta Get Up", a shiny remainder of baroque tendencies that has our man keeping the song at a bubblegum level, sidestepping the album's more "blue" themes. The soap opera twinkling of the demo version of "The Moonbeam Song" reveals its beauty from the start. Weirdest of the bunch is the throwaway, "Lamaze". Banged out on piano and with a grandiose burst of Franco-babble about contractions and moving the left and right leg, Nilsson's joker smile flashes for an instant, a goofy, eclectic streak that riddled other parts of his catalog, like the follow-up, Son of Schmilsson. Aiming for the heart and the top of the pops, though, Nilsson's Schmilsson, in its shuffling, slightly askew, and idiosyncratic way, hit it all perfectly, and this ridiculously overdue reissue still makes my day.

Andy Beta
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