Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Eli and the Thirteenth Confession - Laura Nyro

Some people don't fit in. Maybe that's why they get overlooked. Paul Simon looked out over the streets of New York and found the beauty in the discordance; John Phillips looked out his second story window in Greenwich Village and packed it in – stopping just long enough to write about all the young girls and their pilgrimage to L.A. Laura Nyro, though, seems lost in Manhattan; she didn't fit, somehow, but she didn’t leave. Out of that we have Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.  

Nyro was 20 when she recorded her second album. With Columbia offering greater artistic freedom than her previous label, Nyro holed up in the studio, where she stitched together song fragments into a brocade of jazz- and soul-influenced pop music. When she multi-tracks her vocals during more extroverted fare like "Eli's Coming" and "Stoned Soul Picnic," you can picture her, as a teenager, singing in harmony groups on the streets of New York; when the volume dips and the tempo slows, as on "Lonely Woman" and "Boudoir," you can imagine Nyro gazing out over the city in the wee small hours of the morning. While Eli brings something unique and beautiful onto the scene, the album fell on mostly deaf ears, peaking at #189 on the Billboard 200. Nearly thirty years later, Laura Nyro is still woefully unknown to the public, while the potency of her music remains.

Reviewers commonly refer to her music as an amalgamation of Soul, Pop, Jazz, Broadway, and whatever else, but these styles are so seamlessly fused into something wonderfully new, that naming the ingredients is merely a distraction. "Sweet Blindness" may sound age-old, but there's never been another drinking song remotely like it (with The Pogues "Christmas in New York" the exception). "Poverty Train" goes to more places, and back again, than any of Bob Dylan and company's songs. And in 1968 a woman ending her album by screaming "love my lovething," come on. Throughout the record,

Her first album (1967) included a few enduring gems despite a disastrous recording session (consider the ebullient "Wedding Bell Blues" or the prescient "And When I Die" - both hits for other artists. Indeed,  Laura was considering an offer to become lead singer for Blood, Sweat and Tears after Al Kooper's split, but was dissuaded by her new manager and close partner David Geffen. How crazy would that have been?).

Eli, released Feb 15, 1968, had a perfumed lyric sheet insert (at a time when lyrics were rarely included). While the LP is all but forgotten today, it made her a cult heroine upon its release. That's no small achievement, considering it was competing for attention with The White Album, Beggar's Banquet, Astral Weeks Music from Big Pink, Bookends, Notorious Byrd Brothers, Cheap Thrills and Child is Father to the Man; it takes a back seat to not one of them.

Joni Mitchell owes Laura a great debt. The influence on Rickie Lee Jones can't be overstated. She's been praised most highly, and her impact acknowledged by the likes of Elvis Costello, Elton John and Bob Dylan (who reportedly went up to her at a party and said "I love your chords"). Alvin Ailey has to date choreographed five dances to her music.

With David Geffen

In recent years, Laura has been widely promoted as a lesbian voice. Well, that's fine, I suppose. Interpreting a song such as "Emmie" ("You were my friend, and I loved you") as a Sapphic statement creatively rewrites history, though I'm not passionate about any music or musician because of his/her/ sexual predilections, only to the music that comes out of it (I say that and yet, while I adore the awkward brilliance of Anthony and the Johnsons, I come away with less when I listen to Anohni  - is that a hidden bias, or is some of the passion gone? I don’t know.)

It's more about her words: There’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone, Walking on God's good side. A little magic, a little kindness. God is a jigsaw timer. Time and wine, red yellow honey sassafras and moonshine. The natural snow, the unstudied sea, a cameo. Super ride inside my lovething. Or insisting that she "Ain't gonna tell you what I've been drinking," but then she does just that. The entire gallery of experiences of an eccentric, passionate, spiritual, loving person is set on the table with the silverware. She embraces her lover like a god, her God like a lover. Eli is a trip and a half.

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