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Main Category: Lush Pop
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Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years,

The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Harry Nilsson fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Harry Nilsson fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1967
Overall rating =

Good record. Mood, style, melodies, humor... well, they all suck, sort of, but... good record.

Best song: CUDDLY TOY

Track listing: 1) Ten Little Indians; 2) 1941; 3) Cuddly Toy; 4) She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune; 5) You Can't Do That; 6) Sleep Late My Lady Friend; 7) She's Leaving Home; 8) There Will Never Be; 9) Without Her; 10) Freckles; 11) It's Been So Long; 12) River Deep, Mountain High.

"Ladies and gentlemen, in the center ring - presenting Nilsson and his Shandemonium Shadow Pow!" [Moment of silence. Wild roaring laughter.]

I honestly do not find this very funny. Maybe somebody else does. But then again, this whole album isn't "very" funny - in fact, I seriously doubt if it's supposed to be funny at all. Actually, I seriously doubt if it's supposed to be supposed to be anything, if you get my number. Nilsson's debut has somehow managed to go down as a "classic" in history, or at least a "lost" classic, but it is not quite clear what's that particular specific niche that it occupies in yer average set-of-niches-for-classic-albums-to-be. In my mind's eye, it rather belongs in the "nice" department.

Deep down in his heart, Nilsson has always been a vaudeville sort of guy. That's not an insult, rather the opposite; I'd much rather listen to a vaudeville guy sing and perform lightweight fluff without pretending to be putting too much "soul" into it than to a grand-scheme-kind-of-guy like Richard Carpenter thinking up utterly grandiose, utterly rotten schlock. But sitting through an entire album of vaudeville is a tough job for me, particularly if the vaudeville isn't always top quality stuff. That Nilsson took his primary inspiration from Sgt Pepper is beyond any doubt: there's the primary evidence for this, the man's cover of 'She's Leaving Home', squatting out there in the middle of the record. But Sgt Pepper, no matter how much venom its detractors will try to rub in between the vinyl tracks, was never just vaudeville; it was a diverse and colourful experience dressed up in vaudeville colors. Pandemonium Shadow Show, on the other hand, mostly reads like an endless succession of minor brothers and sisters of 'With A Little Help From My Friends' or 'Lovely Rita'.

Granted, the cover of 'She's Leaving Home' is quite lovely. But pointless. It's the same kind of lush orchestrated ballad - only recorded without an orchestra, at least, without any string parts, all of them replaced with brass, harpsichord, and occasionally percussion (play the two versions back to back and you'll get a clearer idea of how it is actually possible to "tune" the drums). Throw in Nilsson's clever and pretty vocal rendition and the result is almost as good as the original. Almost as good - meaning that there's really precious little reason for its existence. Except to show the world just how much he, Harry Nilsson, is in tune with the Fab Four when it comes down to lush orchestrated ballads.

Much more exciting is his cover of 'You Can't Do That', not so much a cover as a wild pot-pourri of every single Beatles song that has at least a single hookline "insertable" into the melodic skeleton of that particular song. Surprisingly, there's so many of them that, if royalties were paid for quotations as well as full covers, Nilsson would probably have gone broke by the time he'd sell the first hundred copies. Fortunately, that wasn't the case, and the move proved to be a smart one - he managed to get the attention of the Beatles themselves with the idea, which naturally gave him extra popularity (and extra sales). But once again, it's little more than a gimmick, which has the potential of becoming annoying after a few listens. Not to mention that to end the song with the line 'strawberry Beatles forever' is at the very least questionable from Mr Good Taste's point of view.

The real problem, however, is that at this point Nilsson just couldn't write material that could seriously compete with his idols. Whenever he gets sentimental and mushy, the results are syrupy rather than heart-wrenching; and whenever he gets playful, poppy and boppy, the hooks are ever so often drowned in excessive instrumentation and vocal overdubs. In classic American megalomaniac fashion, he way too often goes overboard where far fewer things would have sufficed. No wonder that the best song, after all these years, is still 'Cuddly Toy', which was apparently written for the Monkees but in the process became so dear to Nilsson himself that he released his own version the same month the Monkees released theirs. And not just because it's so lyrically provocative ("you're not the only cuddly toy to be ever enjoyed by any boy" - quite daring for 1967, unless you were a member of the Velvet Underground or something), but because it's so COOL! Nothing extra, just the necessary beat, light brass backing, and doubletracked vocals, never over the top.

Of the lesser songs, I'm also quite partial to 'There Will Never Be', with its unexpected stop-and-start elements and great brass solo, and 'Freckles', with its sad story of That Lonesome Bullied Kid "retold" in a very, very empathetic intonation; both of them are, however, so deeply normal from a melodic point of view that there's little else to say about them. 'There Will Never Be' is, in fact, so normal that it could easily make West Side Story for all I know. On the other hand, I'm really no expert when it comes down to lounge music, and thus not really a reliable source to turn to if you need confirming or rebutting your suspicions - such as whether Nilson truly does execute a brilliant synthesis of American, British, and possibly French cabaret/lounge/music-hall traditions or if he just follows the most generic trends of each of these taken separately.

If anything, he does show himself to be a "vocal eclecticist" on here. On 'Ten Little Indians', he's the nursery rhyme magician, working in the "kiddy songs for grown-up daddies" department. On '1941', he suddenly turns to yodelling, although nobody really asked him to. On 'Sleep Late, My Lady Friend' he turns to them stars and little angels, spinning that heavenly thread like a dedicated Beach Boys adept should. On 'Without Her' he's minimalist, humble, and confused, gently murmuring out the lyrics as if he were predicting Syd Barrett's solo career. And on the cover of Ike & Tina's 'River Deep, Mountain High' that closes the album, he's the rip-roaring rocker who's just discovered - much to his surprise - that he can actually sound hoarse when he wants to. Well, it's not exactly Tom Waits-hoarse, but at the very least quite Eric Burdon-like hoarse, and that's enough.

My overall conclusion is that there's a bit of something all over the place, something out of everything, to be exact, but there's hardly one place where that something actually amounts to Some Thing. The songwriting's not good enough for me. The singing's not good enough for me (I mean, I appreciate the diversity, but I'm not a major fan of his voice in the first place). The arrangements aren't good enough. The humor ain't good enough. Yeah, I'm pretty picky. (I've been told that ever since I was ten, when I first complained that the walrus mask on the cover of Magical Mystery Tour looked like it was made out of a mop rag). But then again, what else is to be expected of a professional songwriter, who's been mostly doing it for the others and who's just taking the first big step for himself? I've always thought that Carole King's best work came on those tracks that were the most free of that Tin Pan Alley spirit. On Pandemonium Shadow Show, that spirit is all-pervasive, even if it might only occasionally reflect the spirit of Harry Nilsson himself. In the end, maybe it would have been a much better idea to let the Beatles cover some Harry Nilsson instead of the opposite. (Wasn't there some kind of rumour about the possibility of his actually joining the band?).



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating =

Well, there can hardly be a reason to dislike this record for somebody who's able to appreciate the Monkees as well.

Best song: ONE

Track listing: 1) Daddy's Song; 2) Good Old Desk; 3) Don't Leave Me; 4) Mr Richland's Favourite Song; 5) Little Cowboy; 6) Together; 7) Everybody's Talkin'; 8) I Said Goodbye To Me; 9) Little Cowboy; 10) Mr Tinker; 11) One; 12) The Wailing Of The Willow; 13) Bath.

A major improvement, and as close as an 11 ever came to a 12; only the relative weakness of a couple numbers, multiplied by the shortness factor (28 minutes? In an epoch which threatened the use of 90-minute tapes? Gimme a break!), is responsible for the final choice. But then numbers are just numbers, and Aerial Ballet is almost the musical equivalent of a real aerial ballet, so it's up to you to decide which of the two lies closer to your heart.

It's not like Harry's musical style had changed a lot. The music hall thing is usually a serious addiction, much like heavy metal riffage, and it's elastic and flexible enough so as to give even a very talented songwriter lots of room to polish his talents. But the attitude has certainly shifted. Being all over the place with his music, as on Pandemonium, brought on the danger of falling victim to lame unfunny jokes (such as 'Ten Little Indians') or gimmicky experiments with Beatles tunes that were fun to listen to just once and then forget forever. Unfortunately, Nilsson just wasn't one of those "very witty" artists whose humour, sarcasm, and brightness pours out of every orifice. I'm all for diversity, but not at the expense of good taste.

Aerial Ballet corrects that. It is much more of a true concept album than Pandemonium, because the songs can all be reduced to a formula, in a good, winning sense of the word. Short, memorable ditties, all but one of them self-penned, lyrically simple and naive, but charming rather than irritating in their naivete. Much of the time, Nilsson is singing about the simple, ordinary pleasures (occasionally, displeasures) of life, such as living with Mum and Dad, sitting at your own good old desk, going home to take a bath, or staying together. These topics are certainly not typical of 1968, a year in which saucerfuls were full of secrets, Ogden's Nut was going flake, doll's houses were producing music, and bands were going off in search of the lost chord to the right and to the left. (Even the Monkees, arguably Nilsson's closest allies at the start of his career, were busy filming Head). The closest analogy would probably be the Kinks' Village Green, but even the Kinks' perspective was a nostalgic fantasy world rather than just pure nostalgia.

And yet, on the other hand, just because this side of life was neglected at the time, Nilsson hit gold here - today, Aerial Ballet, despite being formulaic all over, stands out as one of the oddest pop offerings of the year exactly because it is so weirdly normal. And so disarmingly charming and innocent. Nilsson goes so light and feathery on his listeners that it does seem he's dancing on air most of the time: the orchestration is never dense or pompous, the vocals never 'soar', and instead of bringing in extra instruments, Nilsson prefers to end each song with a brief 'vocal solo', imitating guitars, trombones, pianos, whatever is necessary. (In fact, that's one thing that occasionally gets on my nerves: I love the brassy wah-wah-wah'ing at the end of 'Mr Richland's Favourite Song', but does he have to add doo-wopping to pretty much everything else? Oh, okay, supposedly it's a matter of conception).

The crown of oddness is that the one song off this album that actually made Nilsson into a household name was his only cover version on here - and incidentally, it's also the least typical number on the album. Fred Neil's 'Everybody's Talkin' was later used in Midnight Cowboy, where it certainly fit in much better than on Aerial Ballet. Nevertheless, if there had to be an "intrusion", I'm glad it had to be this song and not anything else (and worse). I haven't heard the original, said to be rather spooky and as suitably melancholic as the lyrics would suggest; Nilsson's arrangement, however, is terrific, giving the tune a steady rollickin' acoustic rhythm and topping it off with just a teensy weensy bit of strings so the effect would be a trifle deeper and more solemn. Best of all, however, is the singing, with those marvelous falsetto twists and leaps. Purists might complain about Nilsson eating the essence out of the song and replacing it with a hapsy-poopsy vibe, but with lyrics as bleak as these, no hapsy-poopsy arrangement will actually bring on a hapsy-poopsy vibe - it will simply look suspicious and intriguing, which it does.

Besides, it's not like Nilsson is always happy and shining himself. The first side of the album is structured like a trap, all glossy and shiny and optimistic, culminating in the awesome "rising waves" of the anthemic 'Together' (although the final lyrics of that song should already keep you on your toes). Then the second side, in the same light and flimsy manner, suddenly opens up a string of problems in life - introduced by 'Everybody's Talkin' and then taking you through the little man problems of 'Mr Tinker' and finally into the inescapable depression of 'One'.

Many fans consider 'One' to have been Nilsson's finest composition, and they're not far off the mark; at the very least, it was certainly the finest he'd written up to that moment. In a certain sense, it's reminiscent of 'Yesterday' - same picture of one lonely guy sitting beside one lonely instrument and having the angels support him with a string quartet bit from above. Actually, Nilsson has McCartney beat here in terms of musically recreating that horrible loneliness vibe, just as McCartney certainly has Nilsson beat in terms of musical complexity and effectiveness. But although 'One' is so devastatingly simple, its simplicity is the cornerstone of its success. 'One' - the 'loneliest number' - is the perfect number of notes to convey all the sadness of being lonely; there is nothing like stark minimalism to really get your point through in this case. And speaking of numbers, the song certainly has the deepest lyrical line on the album - 'two is the loneliest number since the number one', pessimistically suggesting that it may take much more than actually being together with someone else to cure the proverbial loneliness. One thing is for certain: when Aimee Mann picked the song to record it for the soundtrack to P. T. Anderson's Magnolia, she could not have made a more precise, hard-hitting choice. (Provided, of course, that you, the reader, are not among the - relatively - insanely huge number of Magnolia-haters I've had the experience of acknowledging).

The two songs discussed are the obvious high points, but certainly there is a lot more to the album. 'Daddy's Song' is the most upbeat and infectiously happy thing on here, very Monkees-style, but in the Micky Dolenz way rather than in the Davy Jones one, so that's fine and dandy by me. 'Good Old Desk' is by all means the tenderest and most convincing ode to a piece of furniture ever written by anybody in the music business, and boy can I ever appreciate that kind of sentiment, me spending more time at mine than in all other places taken together. 'Little Cowboy', reprised twice, is a cutesy little lullaby, generic, corny, and completely impossible to be offended with. 'Mr Tinker' sounds like something by Ray Davies in his Preservation epoch, only much better in terms of melody (and even much more subtle in terms of lyrical message). The rhythms and some of the vocal elements of 'I Said Goodbye To Me' seem to have later been appropriated by George Harrison for his own 'Try Some Buy Some' - okay, coincidence, maybe, but the Beatles were all big Nilsson fans, and some things do end up sticking in your subconscious. From time to time.

And finally, if you happen to have been really brought down with the feather-cloud gloominess of Side B, as if to cheer you up, Nilsson ends the proceedings on a consciously optimistic note with 'Bath', saying that 'I'm beginning to think there's hope for the human race'. It's probably the fakest moment on the record - it isn't quite clear what exactly is the source of Harry's hope, and how come the sadness and pessimism have suddenly disappeared in a poof of smoke - but then again, Nilsson does work according to a Hollywoodish formula, and where would a Hollywoodish formula be without a happy ending? You gotta have a happy ending, even if you'll have to pull it out of your ass.


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