Harry Nilsson – Aerial Ballet – Speakers Corner (2017)

Fifty years later, this pop album is still important!

Harry Nilsson – Aerial Ballet – RCA Victor LSP-3956 (1968)/Speakers Corner (2017) 180-gram vinyl, 25:15 ****1/2:

(Harry Nilsson – vocals; Plas Johnson – woodwinds; Dennis Budimir – guitar; Al Casey – guitar; Michael Melvin – piano, organ, harpsichord; Larry Knechtel – piano, bass; Jim Gordon – drums; Milt Holland – percussion)

Prior to the advent of the early 1970’s singer/songwriter culture in Southern California, there was Harry Nilsson. The Brooklyn native moved to Los Angeles and balanced his job in a bank with a desire to sing and perform original compositions. After some early songwriting successes with Little Richard, Phil Spector, Glen Campbell, The Yardbirds and The Monkees, Nilsson was signed to RCA Victor as a solo artist. With a three-and-a half octave range as a tenor, he developed a musical style that synthesized baroque psychedelic pop with Caribbean tempos, utilizing vocal overdubs. In 1967, Pandemonium Shadow Show was released to critical acclaim, but disappointing sales. However musical peers like The Beatles were enthusiastic fans and this provided momentum to his career. In 1968, Aerial Ballet fared considerably better, yielding two “hits”. The first, Fred Neiil’s “Everybody’s Takin’” was a minor hit. A year later it would make its way into the iconic movie “Midnight Cowboy” and earn Nilsson a Grammy. The second, “One” has become a standard.

The 70’s was the zenith of Harry Nilsson’s musical legacy. Albums like Nilsson Sings Newman, A Touch Of Schmilson (“Without You”, Coconut”), and A Little Touch Of Schmilson In The Night. were relatively successful. He embraced the American Songbook and his unique weird pop constructs made his songs accessible. Additionally, there were music scores for the cult movie Skidoo, Robert Altman’s Popeye, and the children’s animated TV film, The Point. Television aficionados will remember his theme from The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father (“Best Friend”). In his later career, Nilsson was still recording, but was more renowned for his hard partying in Los Angeles and the infamous Troubadour incident with John Lennon. Sadly, he passed away in 1994 at 52.

Speakers Corner has released a re-mastered 180-gram vinyl of Aerial Ballet. This was Nilsson’s third album, and represented a cohesive set of original compositions. The title was a reference to the singer’s circus grandparents and their high wire act. The quirky appeal of Harry is evident from the opening track, “My Old Desk”. With a “peppy” piano and tracked vocals, Nilsson elevates the mundane (“…My old desk does an arabesque…”) with eclectic imagery. There is a nuanced horn counterpoint and violins for texture. “Don’t Leave Me” is a winsome love song with a 60’s uptempo jazzy/Latin chorus. Nilsson’s vocal flexibility shines on a well-placed falsetto. The non-verbal phrasing is uncanny. On “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song” he uses a subtle vibrato as he tells a self-parody in 20’s/30’s stylings. A trombone and “mouth trumpet” add just the right touch of weirdness.In a mere 1:22, “Little Cowboy” becomes an unforgettable lullaby, framed by a lovely vocal tenor. One could imagine Roy Rogers or Gene Autry humming this (excluding the unconventional overdubbed singing). At the other end of the spectrum, “Together” is arranged with pop and classical influences. The string accompaniment and trumpet approximate the George Martin Beatles era (like “Penny Lane”).

Side Two begins with a pop masterpiece, Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”. The aching melancholy of this ode to loneliness is rendered perfectly by Nilsson’s lyrical voice. His Country & Western sensibility is countered by a sophisticated violin section. What cannot be understated is the vocal gymnastics with tricky falsetto and a “wa-wah” voiced run that is spine-tingling. It easily stands the test of time. “I Said Goodbye To Me” is a template for future pop music. The waltz-time tune has hushed lower-register vocals and another slight vibrato. There is a 52 second reprise of “Little Cowboy with whistling. On “Mr. Tinker”, the anecdotal everyman is explored with sensitivity. You can understand Nilsson’s rapport with Randy Newman. The loping descant melody line and tenuous halting singing is unique.

Many people are familiar with “One”. The opening phrase “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do…” remains timeless. This version is superior to all others. starting with electric piano and voice, a cello is precisely added to the arrangement. Then woodwinds, harpsichord and flute expand the aural landscape. What feels like a pared down song is full and rich. The purity of the emotional singing is resonant and the return to electric piano and voice at the conclusion is beautiful. “The Wailing Of The Willow is a definite change of pace. The bossa nova rhythm and surprising chord changes lend a cinematic ambiance. Harry cuts loose on the finale (“Bath”) with big band, New Orleans-style doo-wah humor and impertinence.

Speakers Corner has done their customary stellar job at re-mastering Aerial Ballet to 180-gram vinyl. Nilsson’s signature tenor voice is captured with finesse and crispness. All of the instrumentation, including horns, woodwinds and strings are blended in without upstaging the vocals. Incredibly, the album barely covers 25 minutes (one track got pulled!). This album is pop history!      

TrackList:
Side One: Good Old Desk; Don’t Leave Me; Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song; Little Cowboy; Together
Side Two: Everybody’s Talkin’; I Said Goodbye To Me; Little Cowboy; Mr. Tinker; One; The Wailing Of The Willow; Bath

—Robbie Gerson

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