Friday, January 24, 2014

Flashback Friday: Aerial Ballet by Nilsson

For this edition of Flashback Friday, I'd like to showcase the album "Aerial Ballet" by Nilsson.

You can listen to it on Xbox Live here:
Aerial Ballet by Nilsson (Xbox Music)

Harry Nilsson - who usually went by his last name on his albums - was born in poverty in NYC. He escaped to California and by the late 60's was working in the computer department of a bank. During this time, he was also writing songs for hire, and was discovered by the Monkees. At this point, his performance skills and his near three octave vocal range led to a recording contract with RCA and close friendships with most of rock royalty, including the Beatles.

Nilsson then proceeded to chart one of the most idiosyncratic careers in rock history - from writing children's movies to being thrown out of bars with John Lennon - without ever performing a live concert. I'll leave the rest of his biography to the excellent DVD "Who is Harry Nilsson?" and concentrate on this album, which was his second for RCA.

His first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) was quite the product of its time - slightly psychedelic, slightly vaudevillian - think Sgt. Pepper's, but orchestral and all by one person. By Aerial Ballet (1968), Nilsson had sharpened his songwriting, ditched the odd cover songs, and delivered his first really amazing song "One" - which was a hit for Three Dog Night, not him. His hit song on this album was "Everybody's Talkin'" - which was, of course the one song he didn't write.

This is a strange album, to be sure. You might find it almost "too pop". That's not because it was recorded in 1968 - even then, it felt out of time compared to contemporary albums like the White Album. Nilsson belonged to an earlier "tin-pan-alley" style of songwriting that fell into favor about then. Concentrate on his elaborate multi-tracked harmony vocals - all done by him - and his use of melody and song arranging. Also - notice how biting the lyrics are from time to time and the odd sense of humor that goes with it.

This bitterness and odd humor would eventually dominate his songwriting thru the rest of the 70's - especially after his breakthrough album Nilsson Schmilsson, which is the last of his "normal" records. In addition, Nilsson tried to out scream John Lennon on their joint album and permanently destroyed his vocal range - his final albums are almost unrecognizable as the work of the artist who cut this record.

But - ignore all that for now. Instead, give a listen to this relic from a simpler time, and imagine where "Rock Music" would have gone had more people been able to follow his lead.

And, of course, feel free to post comments below.

(Side note: The last three songs on the Xbox Live version are not from this album - they're bonus tracks Nilsson recorded about the same time. You may recognize one of them from TV...)

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