The Puppy Song
On of those songs that many people know about but don't necessarily realize was by Harry Nilsson. Although it was released as a single by Harry the hit came for David Cassidy. Originally, the song was written for Paul McCartney's protégé, Welsh singer Mary Hopkin. It is a happy little ditty about friendship
The first thing you notice upon listening to this first track is that the production and arranging style has changed. The brass is toned down towards a more conventional guitars and piano driven accompaniment. The brass is still there, of course, via the tuba which "oom-pah's" the bass line along nicely while the fiddle and banjo add a 'country jazz' touch to the song. Harry sings the song with a lot of charm, and it is this charm which makes this stand out from the other, cover, versions of the song. You could say that it finally reached the audience it deserves when included in Nora Ephron's move 'You've Got Mail' a few years back along with two other Nilssongs, 'Remember' and 'Over the Rainbow'.
Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore
The 'country jazz' feel of the first song becomes more overt here - the fiddle and harmonica reinforce this. On the other side some beautifully layered clarinets and saxophones give a Glenn Miller sort of feel as well - Harry could always take two such diverse genres and fuse them. There is also a whistling section and some more scat. The song is a nostalgic look back at a previous era and all the ingredients come together to make it work. Harry's son, Zak, recorded a cover version of this song for a fan-tribute album called 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' in 1999.
Open Your Window
This is a little gem of a song (as my father would have said). From those first, lazily strummed acoustic guitar chords that feeling of summer, open space and sunshine come flooding through the speakers. I believe that Harry's vocal performance on this song is one of his very finest ever. He is so perfectly at ease with the lazy rhythm, so 'in tune' with the feel of the song and effortlessly glides through his range it never fails to thrill. When he sings "think about letting the rest of the world go fly a kite" you can hear he means it. Never mind paying rent - this was written just after the summer of love, flowers in your hair and "we could be happy alone in a tent". I get a slight feeling of what San Fransisco 1968 might have been about when I hear this.
I have often read the misguided opinion that Harry was a better performer than he was a songwriter. This is obviously based on lazy and flawed research and based on the fact that he did not compose either of his 2 biggest hits. However the artists who have covered Nilsson's songs is wonderfully impressive, This song was covered by, amongst others, no less a star than Ella Fitzgerald.
Mother Nature's Son (Lennon/McCartney)
As much as Harry could write songs for others there is no doubt that he could also take songs by others and make them very much 'his own'. This song, tucked away on The Beatles' recent, eponymous double album was picked up by Harry as an ideal song to follow 'Open Your Window'. Although the version differs little from the original there is still something about Harry's interpretation that lifts the song. The background strings also add a richness and enough 'grandeur' to the sound to stop it being just an throwaway on this album. The Beatles once referred to this version as their favourite Beatles cover song.
Fairfax Rag (Martin)
After the sojourns into 'country jazz' and 'hippy heaven' we come now to another complete contrast. Bill Martin wrote and co-wrote three songs on this album, a connection which saw him invited as a guest to Harryfest 1998. Although I was not there myself I have heard from others how he shared stories and even showed another pianist Harry-fan how to play parts of the songs. Martin is, perhaps, better known for his comedy solo album 'Concerto for Buffoon and Headphones in Asia Minor'
Fairfax Rag is a belter! From the piano intro, through the humorous lyrics, the wonderful jazz instrumental right through to the powerful but somewhat chaotic ending this song doesn't let go. You come back to it and, eventually take in the lyrics, which inevitably make you smile! Credit must also go to the recording engineers here - those if us who have tried know how notoriously difficult it can be to record pianos. Rarely have I ever heard a piano on a pop record sound as good as the one on this track.
City Life (Martin)
As 'Fairfax' dies down the guitar leads us into this. Is it the 'retribution' for its predecessor? Whatever the rationale we have here a song about a boy in the city, down on his luck having left home and writing a letter back to his mother. Essentially a ballad it does pick up in dynamic, intensity and tempo for another blistering instrumental with, again, more than a thanks to the jazz idiom. The song has a beautiful melody which suits Harry's voice just perfectly. He sails into his falsetto with such a natural style one barely notices he's done it at all.
When you make the effort to listen specifically to Harry's vocals on this album you see another reason why many count it amongst their favourites - if Harry's voice ever sounded better than it does consistently throughout 'Harry' then I'm not sure when - absolutely breathtaking! Even more so when you consider that by 1969 Harry had been a regular, and heavy, smoker for a decade or more!
Mournin' Glory Song
The two songs that opened 'side 2' (I still can't help thinking that way - even 20 years into the CD era!) are attractive ballads. If 'City Life' was about the boy away from home and down on his luck then here is the exact female equivalent - but with the 'hope' that drives the former replaced by utter despair in this one. It would have been easy for such an idea as this to sink into 'pathos' but that does not happen. It becomes a genuinely moving song. 'Homelessness' was not a 'trendy' topic in the late 1960s but Harry manages to draw the listener's attention and emotions towards taking seriously an increasing social problem.
The glockenspiel solo in the instrumental was replaced in the single version.
From the despair it cannot be long before Harry's unique sense of humour came shining through. In this song about a lover 'leaving' the singer asks what he could have done to prevent it..."Maybe"...if I'd done this...the biggest 'smile' comes when he even offers to love and kiss his mother-in-law!
The piano intro to this song almost eerily points the way forward to other Nilsson ballads 'yet to come'. The singing is, of course, the centrepiece of the recording while that 'jazz' element is still there in the arrangement.
Barbara Streisand covered this one.
Marchin' Down Broadway (based on a song by Bette Nilsson)
Just a snippet of a song really - Harry was fond of putting little 'bits' here and there to break up the album - this is a good point to do it as 'Harry' is just about to change artistic direction again. You could divide this album into three distinct sections:
1 The 'old-American' nostalgia trip
2 The social commentary and
3 More assorted Americana
'Broadway' was written by Harry's mother and is simply a parade of 'war vets' having a ticker tape parade for being heroes. More whistling from Harry (like in 'Little Cowboy', also written by Bette)
I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City
In one of life's great ironies Harry wrote this song for the movie 'Midnight Cowboy'. Obviously based (to some extent) on 'Everybody's Talkin'' I feel this is, actually, a better song which, had it been chosen, could only have made those closing scenes in the film even better. It would also have been eligible for nomination for 'Best Original Song' Oscar...(what might have been?) However, it was rejected in favour of the ultimate choice. At least Harry got to sing, have the enormous hit and win a Grammy.
The guitar and banjo provide a perfect backdrop for Harry's double-tracked vocal (sometimes in harmony) and with a sensitive and imaginative string part enhancing the song further this wins the vote for my favourite song on the album and one of my favourite Nilsson tracks of all.
It has been covered by many artists including (most notably) Liza Minnelli and Sinead O'Connor for the epic movie 'Magnolia'.
Construction-wise, production-wise and instrumentally this is quite different from the rest of the album. The 3rd Bill Martin song tells of a mystical, travelling 'rainmaker' who visited Kansas and offered to make it rain to end a drought, wasn't paid and left the rain there for evermore.
The open, pounding drums (which may represent looming thunder) are joined by a rare electric bass to underpin the track. The bass is another pointer to a later sound (c/f 'Nilsson Schmilsson' bass).
This song boasts, perhaps, one of the most inventive and unusual cover versions...not the ones by Michael Nesmith or Bobby Gentry but by Nilsson fan Terry Thome, once again for the tribute album mentioned above. (Hear excerpt) An excellent cartoon based on the song was published in 'Everybody's Talkin'' the Nilsson fanzine.
Mr Bojangles (Walker)
The one song on the album I could do without. I have suggested in the past that the album could have been improved (in my opinion) by substituting the always hard to find 'I Will Take You There' in its stead. But in order to do that it would have had to come after 'Maybe' (in section 2) as it would not fit into section 3. However, the 'Rat Pack' 'standard' is here for all eternity so, review it I must!
Nilsson makes a pleasant enough job of it, I have to say - Harry could sing a biblical 'begat' list and make it sound good - I'd just like to know why this song, in particular, was chosen. The singing in the fade is even highly impressive - Harry making the most of both his falsetto and breath control as he improvises a counter-melody.
Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear (Newman)
Geordie(1) singer Alan Price (formerly of The Animals) had had a hit with this song in 1967 England but Randy Newman was still largely unknown in 1969. Harry Nilsson and Newman's careers were shortly about to cross paths again to their mutual benefit and this serves as a nice pre-cursor to the album which followed. A lively song lifted further by some excellent 'Stephane Grappelli' style violin playing.
This is a song from the 1970 movie 'Jenny' starring Alan Alda (of M*A*S*H fame). It is a pleasant, simple sing-along style song with a catchy melody, a few Nilsson trademark touches but probably not strong enough to make it onto an album in its own right. It was released as the B-side to 'I'll Be Home' in the USA.
I Will Take You There (mono single version)
A very 'empty' sounding mix of the song from the 'Skidoo' soundtrack. Most notable for a new string (and oboe) arrangement providing a different counter-melody. Seems a little slower (although I have not checked) and lacks a little 'life' compared to the original.
Rainmaker (mono single version)
A very different sound from the LP version with slide guitar intro and an overall gentler (or at least less austere) feel to it. I like this, actually - it's like a completely different version!
Mournin' Glory Song (UK single version)
The vocals are higher in the mix - possibly re-recorded, there seems a few different vocal inflections here. The glockenspiel is missing in the instrumental and replaced by a final appearance on a Nilsson record of the trusty euphonium (doubled by a flute). This is, therefore, Nilsson's farewell to his first 'signature sound'. Worth owning as a considerable remake from the LP version.
I Will Take You There (remixed version)
One more mix of this song exists which bears mention here, although I confess I do not know (offhand) its source. This has a full orchestral intro and harmony vocals from Nilsson throughout which do not appear on the other versions.
(1) A Geordie is an inhabitant of the North-East of England, particularly around the city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
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