Laura Nyro
More Than A New Discovery


Five years had already passed since Laura Nyro's death, in 1997 of ovarian cancer, when Sony (the label owning the rights to the catalogue of Columbia Records) announced a re-release program of those albums recorded by the singer-songwriter. A gradual program that - though I'm perfectly aware of the precious impact in all matters regarding promotion of such things as unreleased tracks, new liner notes, and new (also better?) digital mastering - I regarded as being redundant. The reason why being that, with the only exception of Nested (originally released in 1978, it had proved to be the last in a series of albums that made Nyro's name held in high esteem by many), which had been re-released for just a short while in Japan only, all that could reasonably be considered as being indispensable in her catalogue was already available in digital format. Sure, sometimes things can get better, but I have to confess that I was quite skeptical about the whole thing.

Provided it's rarity we are talking about, the sure bet for the first title to be re-released was obviously on Nested (an album, by the way, that had already sounded quite muffled in its vinyl days). Alternatively, when assuming the chronological perspective, the first step had to be her first album, More Than A New Discovery, which, originally released on the Verve label in 1967, had been re-released on Columbia in 1973 with a new flowery cover under the title The First Songs.

But no: The first batch featured Eli And The Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969) and Gonna Take A Miracle (1971). The choice of titles was in a way quite logical: the first of the three albums (her first on Columbia) had shown Nyro expressing herself with more freedom, free from those constrains that - when talking about orchestration, arrangements, and the matter of "rubato" when it came to tempi - had so constrained her on her first album; the second title had shown Nyro trying to widen the confines of the song form - and succeeding, with excellent results; while on the third album she had revised a good part of a repertory that so great an influence had on her at the time of her apprenticeship.

Which titles were left out? Well, obviously More Than A New Discovery and, strangely, also the very good Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat (1970). No trace of Smile (1976), her first album after a five years' absence, either; nor of Season Of Lights (1977, a double in Japan, but only a single in the rest of the world), which had documented the tour that had followed. Not to mention Nested. After two years Sony released a CD featuring a very nice live concert, for the better part unreleased: Spread Your Wings And Fly - Live At The Fillmore East May 30, 1971.

So it really looks like the story - at least, the one concerning those editions curated by Sony - stops here. It's quite easy to guess the "niche" destiny that awaited those three titles released six years ago. It's also quite easy to guess the "niche" destiny, or worse, awaiting those titles still to be re-released in today's climate. It looks like licenses will be granted, on a "case by case" basis; a fact which should make it easier for many to get those albums that are so impossible-to-get (but are they really so hard to get? having a look on the Web, I found most, if not all, of them being quite easy to find, on the cheap) will eliminate any chance of the original albums, as re-releases, ever forming a coherent whole.

What about now? Well, Nested appears to have just been released, by a (ad hoc?) US label, but at the moment of this writing it's been impossible for me to get it - yet? While the first album was recently re-released by a UK label, Rev-Ola. It's a tale that, for clarity's sake, has to be told in two parts. (I wonder what will happen on the day when things like CDs, master tapes, and the very concept of "original", will disappear. Will we ever find a different way to pass our time?)

More Than A New Discovery is the kind of first album that with an expression that today sounds - maybe - a touch rhetorical we could call "one destined to make history". Here the important factor is really "context" (while it's entirely possible that the listener will find the album pleasant-sounding, interesting, inspirational, moving, and so on just by listening to it): after all, more than forty years have passed, and so it's to be expected that timbres, arrangements, and items of style will get different values for different listeners. In order to quickly show an important difference, I'll mention an album by Barbra Streisand, produced by Richard Perry: Stoney End, where the singer performs, among other things, Hands Off The Man (Flim Flam Man) and Stoney End, off More Than A New Discovery (also Time And Love, off Eli And The Thirteenth Confession, besides Just A Little Lovin' and No Easy Way Down off the highly celebrated Dusty Springfield album, Dusty In Memphis); this album was originally released in 1971, but I believe that in a "blind" listening session it will be Streisand's album that'll sound as being "older", first of all due to a more rigid, less "funky", vocal approach. This, even though More Than A New Discovery lacks the other element that's so important for Nyro's true sound: her piano, which on that album she was forbidden to play (which is the reason why her albums on Columbia proudly stated: Laura Nyro - Accompanying Herself On The Piano).

Here we have to make things clear: it's one thing to argue - due to ignorance, or professional whoring - of a couple of notes which were robbed off somebody else, and are now played badly, that "they sound quite like..."; totally another to listen to the debut album by a nineteen-year-old by somebody who's for the most part self-taught and who's influenced by Doo-Wop, Motown, Bacharach & David and Goffin & King (and jazz, classical, and Broadway musicals) who succeeds not only in formulating a synthesis, but a kind of synthesis that is so personal that it becomes a "style" by itself.

It goes without saying that Nyro's performances of her own songs were, comparatively speaking, difficult to appreciate. So that her songs became popular when they were performed in more plain terms by artists such as The Fifth Dimension, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and the above-mentioned Barbra Streisand; while the more "underground" portion of the audience appreciated cover versions such as Save The Country as performed by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity on their celebrated double Streetnoise. But it's through her original interpretations that we appreciate con gusto the brio in Wedding Bell Blues and California Shoeshine Boys, the duets in Blowing Away, the mood in Billy's Blues and He's A Runner, and those pearls (so different, yet both so moving) titled Buy And Sell and And When I Die.

All through the Seventies, Laura Nyro's original albums on Columbia were not so hard to find. The same cannot be said for her debut album on Verve. The only edition of that album that was easily available being the Columbia re-release from 1973 (with a different cover) titled The First Songs. It had a strange sound, with a more pronounced bass than those albums she recorded later. At the time I thought that it all was due to the work of Remix Engineer listed on the LP cover, Jack Ashkinazy.

Things got a bit more complicated when I got the news that her album on Verve had not been released just once, but twice: the second version featuring the same running order as the one I knew from the re-release from '73 (but, obviously, with a different cover and a different mix), and with the song lyrics printed on the back of the album (just like the aforementioned Columbia re-release) in lieu of the liner notes (which I knew existed, though I had never seen them) of the first edition. Most of the sources I've consulted date both Verve editions in 1967, with just a minority placing the release date of the second edition in 1969.

At this point we have a problem: which edition is the basis of the new Rev-Ola CD? The issue was debated on the Web (I'll spare readers the many minutiae), and it's a debate that I found difficult to comprehend the minute I listened to my copy of the CD. The song order is that of the first Verve edition, while the backcover doesn't resemble neither the first edition (there are no liner notes), nor the second (there are no lyrics) - none of them, obviously, had the Rev-Ola liner notes from 2008.

Quite incredible, the new liner notes claim the album's original year of release to have been 1966 (well...), with the recording sessions having taken place in... 1965! (Wow! Really?)

OK, but how does it sound? Well, it sounds fine to me, very fine, with just a caveat: I've never listened to the original version(s) on Verve from the Sixties. I could only play the new CD edition side-by-side with the remixed vinyl version from 1973 and with the Columbia CD (the only version that I know of), that's essentially the same of the one on vinyl, albeit with a new, digital mastering.

When trying to understand the logic underlying the remix from 1973, my hypothesis was the remix engineer's intention to be that of highlighting the solo voice and the rhythm section (electric bass, drums, percussion), while at the same time placing more in the background all those elements such as harmonica, oboe, cornet, strings, background vocals that, while likeable as "colour" when used sparingly, could make the whole sound excessively dated to an average listener in 1973. But, more than through a remix of the multitrack, to me it looks like the final result was obtained through a selective use of equalization; hence, those painful, distorted peaks every time the Nyro's vocals overload the microphone; those peaks that, quite easy to listen to on the vinyl version, became quite annoying in the CD edition of the album (I'd like to dedicate this discovery to all those who - at the time when the CD was fast becoming the industry's standard, supplanting the vinyl LP - argued that an extended frequency response in the higher frequencies would result in our discovering new nuances in old recordings - not that they were technically wrong...).

Nyro's vocals are now placed more "inside" the instrumental whole. To me this new version sounds more in line with the standards of the time. Those instruments who play the role of "auxiliary soloists" are now more easily audible, but never overpowering (due to monetary reasons, the size of the "orchestra" on the original sessions was not too large). When compared to that of the previous versions, the sound level is quite high, but with no increased distortion. Whether the new sound will induce fatigue in the long run I can't say. Type and length of reverb sound quite "modern", especially the tails. And it's obvious to me that some kind of no-noise program was used to minimize tape hiss and the vanishing of oxide, but this didn't occur in a way that's more than what's already the norm when it comes to re-releases of "similar" albums. such as those by a Dusty Springfield or a Scott Walker. Anyway, listening to the "s" at the end of Billy's Blues, or the "d" at the end of Buy And Sell, is quite a thrill.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008 | Apr. 22, 2008