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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1235

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Laura Nyro: Angel in the Dark
by George Graham

(Rounder 3176 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/18/2001)

In the first golden age of singer-songwriters that the 1960s represented, scores of remarkable and remarkably influential artists emerged, from Bob Dylan to Phil Ochs to Joni Mitchell to Carole King. Among the most beloved and fascinating figures to appear was the late Laura Nyro. A piano playing composer-vocalist, she released her first album at the age of 19, and in a few short years created a body of songs that became enormous hits for artists including Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat and Tears, Fifth Dimension and Linda Ronstadt. Even Frank Sinatra recorded Ms. Nyro's songs. But the definitive versions of such classics as Eli's Comin', Stoned Soul Picnic, Time and Love, And When I Die, and Save the Country, were on her own eclectic recordings. Then she went into semi-retirement by the age of 24, only to emerge periodically, though infrequently with new music, as she devoted her attention to her family. Ms. Nyro also had a predilection for soul music and old standards, and despite her abilities as a songwriter, often recorded cover versions of older songs in her own distinctive style, marked by an almost haunting voice.

In the early 1990s, Ms. Nyro again re-activated her musical career for a series of recordings and concerts. She had disconnected herself from her previous record labels, and was seeking to start a new label that would provide her an outlet for her music, and so began recording a new collection of songs for a projected set of albums -- one of new compositions, one of covers and another a live recording. While she was on tour on the West Coast in 1995, she learned that she had contracted cancer. After undergoing a round of aggressive treatments, she stepped up her recording schedule in the spring and summer of that year, despite a lack of a record label, a rocky family situation and shaky finances.

Now, some six years later, these sessions have been released in a CD called Angel in the Dark, which CD consists of material intended for the album of new original songs, combined with her cover performances of some of the tunes she called "heartbeat" songs. The recordings came from 1994, while she was making one of her occasional re-emergences, and 1995, after her first round of cancer therapy. Her partner in the proposed record label, poet Eileen Silver-Lillywhite, has been working since Ms. Nyro's death in the spring of 1997, to secure release of these recordings, in accordance with Ms. Nyro's wishes. Now they are finally out, with the planned live CD to be issued later. The result is a absolute gem of an album that has Ms. Nyro in fine form, creating the kind of songs for which her fans have long admired her, and delivering them in the unadulterated, honest style that is virtually unaltered since her classic New York Tendaberry or Eli and the Thirteenth Confession albums. For those who have long been fans of Ms. Nyro, the album is like unexpected manna from heaven, and also poignant to hear how she had returned to the scene, doing some of the best work of her career, only to be struck down shortly afterward by the ravages of cancer.

While it could be argued that a record that more or less duplicates one's original sound established as a teenager might not be considered artistic progress, Ms. Nyro was one of a kind, and her sound, sometimes achingly honest and vulnerable, is timeless, and now even more relevant in the current period when commercial music is so downright bad and yet good singer-songwriters are in abundance. It's also interesting that the cover songs she chooses are from very diverse sources, from George Gershwin to Bert Bacharach to Smokey Robinson. She serves those up in somewhat unexpected treatments, that sometimes don't reveal the song's familiar elements for a while.

But the greatest interest will undoubtedly be on the seven and a half new songs on this generous sixteen track CD. In keeping with this album's timeless sound, they appear as instant classic Laura Nyro songs, at once familiar and new. Most are love songs in one sense or another, but there are songs celebrating spring, one on music as a purpose in life, and even an elegy to a beloved dog who died around the period of this album.

Leading off is the title piece Angel in the Dark which establishes the sound of the CD, seeming as it does to emanate from about 1969, with its soul-influenced horn arrangements and Ms. Nyro's distinctive chorus of overdubbed backing vocals that she sings. <<>>

Family is the inspiration for Triple Goddess Twilight, one of the album's finest songs, done in a mostly solo setting, highlighting Ms. Nyro's one-of-a-kind voice. <<>>

Ms. Nyro sometimes said she looked upon making music as being in a playground. The song Serious Playground, also done in a solo setting, addresses the dichotomy between music as play and as a way to making a living. <<>>

Some of Ms. Nyro's cover versions on this album are songs you might expect her to do, as compatible with her style as they are. One is Carole King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, but Ms. Nyro adds a few interesting twists. <<>>

Also in the familiar but unexpected department is the Smokey Robinson song Ooh Baby Baby, reminiscent of Ms. Nyro's early 1970s album Gonna Take A Miracle. But she brings her own distinctive character to the song. <<>>

One of the most striking of the covers, and perhaps the most surprising choice of songs is the Rodgers and Hart composition He Was Too Good to Me, done in a stark solo performance. <<>>

The most upbeat track is Gardenia Talk, a celebration of spring and the things it inspires. <<>>

Another of the surprising choices of cover songs is George Gershwin's Embraceable You, which Ms. Nyro interprets in her own distinctive way, including some subtle jazz-like re-harmonization of the Tin Pan Alley standard. <<>>

The short elegy for her dog Ember is called Animal Grace. It's not the first time she has written songs about animals, but this one has added poignancy. <<>>

According the CD's extensive liner notes by Ms. Silver-Lillywhite, the last song Ms. Nyro recorded was Sweet Dream Fade, which was worked into an arrangement on the last day in the studio. It's classic Nyro, with the nice jazzy arrangement. <<>>

For long-time fans of Laura Nyro, Angel in the Dark is a most pleasant surprise, a newly released collection of material not heard before from a voice silenced almost exactly four years ago. Making it even better is the fact that it is one of the best recordings of her latter career, which was interrupted by long pauses. This CD returned to the classic, honest, intimate sound that marked her earliest albums. And her distinctive, warm but vulnerable voice was probably the best on record of her career, despite the start of the illness that would end her life. She had all the charm and agility of her early albums with an added maturity that gave her own songs, and her interpretations those of others added depth. The voluminous, and often touching liner notes add to the excellent quality and integrity of this CD release.

Our sound grade is close to an "A." Ms. Nyro recorded the CD in a number of studios, some better than others, and the quality of the piano varies quite a bit from a cheesy electric piano to a very nice concert grand. But the mixing approach is understated and very respectful of the music. The dynamic range also well captures the wide ebb and flow of Ms. Nyro's performances.

Angel in the Dark reminds us once again of one of the most significant singers and songwriters from the an age that produced many, and how Laura Nyro was creating some of her best work right up to her all-too-early passing.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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