Laura Nyro – More Than A New Discovery

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Part I: The Background

Laura Nyro got her start as a songwriter rather than a performer—her first big break came when she wrote the song “And When I Die” for folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Around the same time, she managed to land a recording contract, resulting in her debut album. She had a bit of a Bob Dylan thing going on at the time: a handful of songs from the album became better known for their cover versions. Aside from the aforementioned Peter, Paul and Mary cover, other artists to cover her compositions included The 5th Dimension and Barbra Streisand. The album was rereleased with a resequenced track order in 1973 under the title “The First Songs” to capitalize on Nyro’s newfound fame. Nyro herself wasn’t too fond of the album—as she had little creative control at the time, she had little say in the arrangements. This resulted in a very straightforward, pop-oriented sound, though it’s evident from Nyro’s performances on the album that she would be better suited to more adventurous, complex song structures and musical ideas.

 

Part II: The Music

Goodbye Joe: The album opens with one of its best tracks: a mellow yet cheery parting song. A soulful organ and enthusiastic horns bring a brightness to the sound, as they do on the majority of the album’s tracks. The song’s a straightforward pop number with a great melody and accessible lyrics. It ends with a bit of tension as Nyro’s refrain of “goodbye Joe” repeats until the fadeout, leaving the chord progression unresolved. RATING: 9/10

Billy’s Blues: A moody jazz song with a great vocal and a dreary atmosphere. We’re starting to see a bit of versatility here; Nyro sounds just as authentic in a jazz setting as she does in a pop setting. Again, the lyrics aren’t deep—did we really need to be told that “Some folks have it good / And some folks have it no good.” Rather, this song is a sketch—it evokes a glum, wistful mood and it does so very convincingly. RATING: 7/10

And When I Die: And here’s one of the happiest songs about dying I’ve ever heard. The singer confronts their own mortality with an optimistic outlook: “When I die, and when I’m gone / There’ll be one child born in the world to carry on.” It’s also a song about freedom, both in life and in death: “I can swear there ain’t no heaven / But I pray there ain’t no hell.” The song’s so upbeat and hopeful that it’s contagious. You’ll find considerably more attitude here than you will on the Peter, Paul and Mary version. RATING: 8/10

Stoney End: This one’s a bit of a tossup—I think Barbra Streisand’s rendition has the edge here. There’s also a 1968 recording by a singer named Peggy Lipton—it’s not quite as good, but is worth checking out nevertheless. Anyway, Nyro’s vocals here are the highlight—particularly when she dips into head voice to sing “Cradle me / Momma cradle me again.” There’s a vulnerability that really shines through. The song’s a bit of a downer if you pay attention the lyrics: the first verse is about disillusionment, the second about heartbreak, and the third about stormy weather (a bit of an anti-climax). “Stoney End” clearly means rock bottom (duh), and the disheartened singer begs for a second chance at life. While I prefer the arrangement on the Streisand version, Nyro’s vocals are more emotionally potent. RATING: 10/10

Lazy Susan: The reversion to jazz style might not be as welcome here were it not for Nyro’s keen sense of melody. This song is downright mesmerizing. It’s also lyrically dense, with vivid images like the following: “Courted and cradled by heaven and hillside / Sun-fried black-eyed Sue.” There’s a neat little twist at the end, where Johnny—presumably the guy the singer has “lost and loved” as stated in the first line—seems to have moved on with Lazy Susan. It introduces an interesting tonal shift to the piece; what appears to be sympathy towards the lonely figure of Lazy Susan is actually veiled bitterness. RATING: 9/10

Hands Off The Man: Also known as “Flim Flam Man”, as it was titled on the reissue. It’s the most memorable track on the album, thanks in part to the satisfying harmonies during the chorus. It warns of a sketchy character—the titular Flim Flam man—who’s a bit of a con artist, even though he’s got so much charm he can pay his rent with it. You have to wonder if there’s a real life basis for this character, though the song is more playful than it is bitter. Melody, harmony, the whole package really. Great song. RATING: 10/10

Wedding Bell Blues: Another standout track—so much so that this was bumped up to album opener on the reissue. Reportedly, Nyro’s original vision for the song was much more ambitious; she wanted the song to consist of several rhythmically distinct sections, but this idea was vetoed by her arranger. And while it’s fun to imagine what might have been, “Wedding Bell Blues”—in which the singer laments the fact that their beloved just will not pop the question—is nevertheless a great song. RATING: 9/10

Buy And Sell: The album kind of tapers off from here on out. This is another jazzy number, but it lacks the raw emotionality and melodic sensibility of the previous offerings. The atmosphere is very noir, and the evocative lyrics, which seem to suggest that just about everything in life is a commodity, are the song’s saving grace. RATING: 4/10

He’s A Runner: This one’s a bit of a slog. As always, Nyro delivers a stellar vocal performance. But there’s not much substance to this song—the arrangement is stiff and the melodies understated. It’s about a man who just can’t commit, but it lacks the usual sense of wit and vivid poetry that breathes life into these slower songs. RATING: 2/10

Blowing Away: This album’s major flaw is that the arrangements become stale after a while. I can see why Nyro was frustrated with the album’s direction—there are basically two clusters of songs here: the slow, jazzy ones, and the upbeat pop ones. This is the latter, and were Nyro not such a great songwriter, there would be very little to sustain the album by this point. Still, this ode to a lover feels like a lesser effort compared to some of the earlier tracks. RATING: 6/10

I Never Meant to Hurt You: An apologetic track, though we never do find out what it is the singer did to hurt her lover. We only get vague hints: “Why did I do things I never meant to do? / Why did I speak so carelessly?” This track is buried at the end of the album here, and rightly so. That said, there is a regretful sense of sorrow to the vocal, and the slow-down at the end of the song mimics the singer breaking down into tears. RATING: 5/10

California Shoeshine Boys: The album ends on a light-hearted note—a song about fickle boys and the heartbreak they leave in their wake. They actually went for something a little different with the arrangement this time; you’ll notice a folk influence in the arrangement and playing. It’s a welcome change of pace, even if it isn’t one of the stronger compositions. RATING: 6/10

 

Part III: The Album

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Aesthetic: Neither of the album covers strike me as memorable, though the original does encapsulate the singer-songwriter aura much better than the reissue. While the pop-oriented production does have a level of polish, it gets to be a bit of a drag towards the end of the album. The original title, “More Than A New Discovery”, is probably the best of the bunch, but even that is a bit of a mouthful. SCORE: 2/5

Artistic Merit: Laura Nyro’s songwriting and vocal performances here hint at a much greater talent than is allowed to be on display. This is very much a pop album, though the songs here were worthy of much more than the very safe, commercial arrangements they wound up with. SCORE: 2/5

Flow: I said before that there are two types of songs on this album: the jazzy ones and the poppy ones. The problem is they don’t fit together very well, nor are the songs sequenced in a way that eases the listener from one emotional state to the next. Some of the transitions can be quite jarring, actually. While the album’s sound isn’t sustainable, since the album clocks in at about 35 minutes it doesn’t really feel like it overstays its welcome either. SCORE: 3/10

CLOSING REMARKS: I haven’t gotten around to listening to the album using the reissue’s sequencing—perhaps that makes for a better listen. Regardless, the album’s a suitable introduction to a great artistic talent. So think of this one as a promise of good things yet to come, yeah?

FINAL SCORE: 64

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