Laura Nyro
Time And Love - The Essential Masters

(Audio Fidelity)

"Picture a Parallel Universe where Bob Dylan is just a songwriter whose songs only hit the top of the charts when performed by more conventional singers." This, from memory, is a definition somebody, somewhere, used when talking to me (whose identity, unfortunately, I really can't recall) about the Laura Nyro paradox: while a lot of her songs are (were?) quite well-known, her identity as a musician, instrumentalist, singer and composer is a lot less defined. And "a name written on some records where other people do the singing" is a tag that can easily apply to both Nyro and (first-period) Dylan. It was only when his songs were performed by artists such as Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, and Sonny and Cher that paying audiences really started loving those songs, such as Blowin' In The Wind, that his peculiar vocal timbre, cadences, and phrasing made so difficult to "get" on a mass level.

Let's also think about Joni Mitchell, whose commercial fortunes could easily have been quite different: just a writer of hits for the likes of Tom Rush, George Hamilton IV, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk, and Judy Collins.

As sung by others, Laura Nyro's songs conquered a very respectable slice of the soundtrack to US life in the latter part of the 60s: let's just recall The 5th Dimension and their versions of Wedding Bell Blues, Stoned Soul Picnic, and Sweet Blindness; Three Dog Night and Eli's Coming; Blood, Sweat & Tears and And When I Die; Barbra Streisand and Stoney End. (Let's not forget fine, but not very commercial, versions such as the cover of Save The Country recorded by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity on their album, Streetnoise.) Funny thing this, Laura Nyro's highest-charting single was her cover of the Gerry Goffin and Carole King's minor classic Up On The Roof.

The original versions of the highest-charting songs written by Laura Nyro are not at all more "difficult" than the covers, just a lot more "intense", with a lot of minor irregularities both in the writing and the performing - think about her use of rubato and her tempo changes! - that inevitably make most hit versions of her song sound "flat".

Released in 1967, her debut album More Than A New Discovery (re-released in 1973 under the title The First Songs) presented an artist who, despite being only 19 (!), was already able to offer a personal, mature synthesis that was quite au-courant of all the multiple, diverse stylistic currents which inhabited the US "popular music" panorama of the time. Released the following year, Eli And The Thirteenth Confession was even better, thanks also to Nyro's first-hand involvement in producing and arranging the album. Then, New York Tendaberry (1969) and Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat (1970) showed a greater maturity that inevitably went hand-in-hand with a more "selective" appeal: the hits stopped here. An album of covers, Gonna Take A Miracle (1971), followed: here Laura Nyro performed quite a few tracks that had been of great importance for her artistic growth. It was just the end of a chapter, not of the whole story.

Originally released about ten years ago, the "Best Of" titled Time And Love - The Essential Masters (here's a very important note for all you readers who are easily distracted - in a hurry: this is a different version, and NOT the one I'm taking about here, OK?) worked as a kind of Greatest Hits of some sort, placing under one roof the original versions of her songs that had charted when covered by those aforementioned names, plus other original Nyro tunes that shared those traits of being for the most part "light and communicative", and so potentially bound for wider appeal. I didn't buy it, for the simple reason that I had all that was available by her, in both LP and CD formats. I bought the three CDs that were re-released in 2002, more in the hope of a new re-master that could better what to my ears sounded wrong in the first CDs than in the hope of finding earth-shattering revelations when it came to the featured unreleased versions/tracks.

(It's quite funny to think now about the very concept of "Greatest Hits" or "Best Of", in an age when anybody can easily download practically anything "at a very cheap price", our access to an artist's repertory not being in the least restricted anymore by a "low financial risk option" such as a "Best Of", whatever it meant.)

From a personal point of view I have to admit that in my opinion no Laura Nyro "Best Of" from the period Time And Love - The Essential Masters deals with could be reasonably considered as satisfying without the inclusion of, at the very least, such tracks as Buy And Sell, Lonely Women, Poverty Train, Gibson Street, and Captain For Dark Mornings. But I have no trouble admitting that, within those time limits, Time And Love - The Essential Masters offers a very coherent picture. And let's not forget it's songs that are by definition part of the highly selective list called "Modern American Music" we are talking about.

So, why on earth did I decide to listen to an album that ten years ago I had regarded as being not in the least interesting? It's simple: For this new Gold CD edition, Audio Fidelity and Steve Hoffman - the mastering engineer who did this new re-master - did not use the digital masters of the previous CD version; instead, they went back to the original analog tapes. Results are very impressive indeed: the CD sound is now warm and inviting, it totally lacks the shrill, unpleasant qualities of the previous CDs. Just minimal "tweaking", with no digital edits or "fixes". To be more specific, piano parts (both hands) are a lot clearer, vocal counterpoints easier to get (and enjoy!), wind instruments warmer and more defined, harmonic progressions easier to perceive.

Since my old cartridge is still badly in need of being updated, I decided not to listen to my old Columbia LPs. The comparison, in the course of a quite frenetic week, was between this new Gold Edition and my 80s Columbia CDs, the 2002 CD re-releases, and the Rev-Ola CD re-release from not long ago.

The only track off the album Smile (1976), Sexy Mama is clearer, the relationship between vocals and wind instruments a lot better than in the previous CD version, the same being true of the three tracks off Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat: When I Was A Freeport And You Were The Main Drag, Blackpatch, and Up On The Roof. I immediately noticed the different emotive response provoked by the new version of It's Gonna Take A Miracle featured here: the vocals are clear, with no unmusical-sounding "peaks"; the strings are like velvet; the electric bass is present but also plausible; so the song's bridge is now your classic "handkerchief" moment. The new sound of Save The Country, off New York Tendaberry, is easy to appreciate: here, the track is back to its natural "pocket symphony" dimension, thanks to the presence of majestic-sounding vocals and winds (one can really see the studio space and hear its acoustic fingerprints).

The majority of the featured tracks comes off the first two albums. In fact, five tracks are off More Than A New Discovery/The First Songs, four are off Eli And The Thirteenth Confession. Talking about the latter, we can say that the featured versions of Sweet Blindness, Eli's Coming, Stoned Soul Picnic, and Lu offer the same analytical qualities of 2002's CD while at the same time lacking the unpleasant shrillness that made for extremely fatiguing-inducing listening sessions - in fact, at the time I had been quite surprised to notice that I listened more often to the older, 80s, version! Here there's no reason to fear Eli's Coming's multiple vocals, or Lu's half-open hi-hat.

Nyro's first album is well represented by five classic songs: Wedding Bell Blues, And When I Die, Blowin' Away, Goodbye Joe, and Stoney End. They all sound superb: (almost) no more nasty distortions of the previous Columbia (I also remember the LP quite well!). I think that in a few instances - such as, And When I Die - Hoffman has managed to somewhat "tame" those left channel trombones that were also quite present in the Rev-Ola CD version.

Paradoxically, the strongest effect those listening sessions had on me was to make me long for more Laura Nyro albums (her whole catalogue, in fact) to be re-mastered with the same loving care. OK, I'll settle for her first five albums. Only a dream, maybe. Meanwhile, why don't we give Marshall Blonstein (if I correctly understood, he's the nice man behind Audio Fidelity) a nice surprise? Let's all buy a copy of this Audio Fidelity Gold CD Time And Love - The Essential Masters, see if he's be able to release, say... New York Tendaberry?

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | Sept. 18, 2010