Nilsson Schmilsson

Harry Nilsson

RCA Records, 1971

REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert


Harry Nilsson was a musician's musician. More a songwriter and performer than a 'rock star', he never toured, rarely performed on TV, and was more often remembered for being publicly accorded the title of The Beatles' favorite American singer than actually singing anything. This high praise was accorded for his 1967 release Pandemonium Shadow Show, his first original recording, and he continued recording through 1970 on the strength of his quirky wit, one single in the hit movie Midnight Cowboy ("Everybody's Talkin'), and his magnificent three-and-a-half-octave range.

1971, though, appears to have brought the decision to dabble in the mainstream, and he released his most unabashedly pop effort, Nilsson Schmilsson. There's a lot that has been written about this CD; it's almost crushed sometimes under its own critical weight. Maybe it's time for a fresh look.

First off, Nilsson Schmilsson is a lousy CD in the technical sense. With no liner notes, almost unreadable back cover (which is obviously just a photographic reduction of the back of the original LP), and marginal production values, it should be considered a CD in name only. I have checked around to the usual sources, and there doesn't seem to be a remastered version. This is a shame, in many ways; Nilsson's voice was subtle and expressive enough that this Cro-Magnon era CD doesn't do justice to it. The production is, in fact, so bad that I can't actually judge a couple of tracks; "Early In The Morning" is a specific problem, as I can't tell if the hollowness is supposed to be there or if it's just the sucky recorded-in-a-bathroom analog technology.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

That rant over, the rest of the songs are an interesting bunch. Harry Nilsson's influences were eclectic, to say the least; he was just as likely to include Tin Pan Alley flourishes as early-70s pop/rock standbys. Never quite in step with the times, he was a musical jack-of-all-trades, and it shows on Nilsson Schmilsson. Sound and influences are all over the map here; he jumps from barrelhouse to R&B to Cat Stevens-like soft pop without a moment's notice. If you can handle that, it's actually really impressive; he does all these sounds at least competently, and some of them are downright elegant.

"Without You" is one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and if you only know the Mariah Carey version, shame on you. (Mariah's wasn't bad, to be fair, but Nilsson's blows her away.) "Coconut" is one of those songs like Todd Rundgren's "Bang On The Drum"; you've heard it, but you didn't know a serious musician actually recorded it, and it's still pretty funny. "The Moonbeam Song" is sweet and wistful, with a delicate acoustic guitar. The highlight for me, however, was "Down"; a driving rocker with a truly great horn line, this is an undiscovered gem.

However -- and you knew there would be a however -- there are some clunkers. Songs like "Driving Along" suffer from trite lyrics and too obvious a Beatles influence. "I'll Never Leave You" is supposed to sound rich and full; instead, it just sounds lugubrious and halting, a funeral march for a love song. And while "Jump In The Fire" was a chart hit, it left me cold; what could have been a passable rock song dragged on too long in pointless instrumental jamming.

Most rock critics are like sheep; someone somewhere anointed Nilsson Schmilsson as a rock classic, so everyone since then has repeated the wisdom verbatim. It might be better to accept the album for what it is; a piece of flawed brilliance, where the highlights and lowlights combine into a mixed bag. Harry Nilsson would never be this good again; the problem remains that it's not as good as a lot of people claim it to be in the first place.

Rating: B-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2003 Duke Egbert and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of RCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.