"Nilsson Sings Newman" Issued By Speakers Corner on Quiet Vinyl For the First Time

Warner Brothers put Randy Newman on a college tour in 1969 with Ry Cooder and Captain Beefheart. The idea was to familiarize college kids with the label's eclectic artistic mix.

I saw this crazy musical mashup in the Boston University gymnasium but I was already familiar with Randy Newman. I'd bought his first album in 1968 because his photo on the cover reminded me of me in 1964.

Not a great reason to buy a record but what a great record: string drenched, overproduced with vocals by Newman that were overwhelmed by strings. But Newman's droll sense of humor and songwriting brilliance shone through. The album flopped but was a critical success and other artists dug it and began covering Newman.

Harry Nilsson, who, unlike Newman could really sing, was one of Newman's early champions and in 1970 he recorded this very short, sweet album of Newman songs with the composer backing him on piano.

Sounds simple. Nonetheless this is a complicated production filled with hundreds of overdubs and if you listen and hear simplicity you just aren't listening.

After much rehearsing, the basic piano and vocal tracks were recorded at RCA's Music Center of the World in Hollywood beginning in August of 1969, with six sessions in all, ending in September. Nilsson worked manically fueled by cocaine. He did multiple takes to get everything as he envisioned it in his head. By the end Newman was exhausted and feared all of the spontaneity had been destroyed that makes a record great.

Nilsson got permission to remove the tapes from RCA (not easy to do!) and took them to Wally Heider's in San Francisco where he added overdubbed multi-part background singing and some unusual voice-over "instructions". It's as if you are listening both to the finished album and to the making of the album.

Nilsson covers "Vine Street" familiar to fans of Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, the pleasingly racist "Yellow Man," the depressing yet humor-laced life cycle tune "Love Story", the sincerely tender "I'll Be Home" and the wallow-in-the-misery "Living Without You," which was Newman's first tune to become a genuine standard. The album ends with the simmering with bitterness "So Long Dad". Also here is Newman's prescient "The Beehive State", which basically flips the bird at The Tea Party forty plus years ahead of its time. The only song written specifically for the album is "Caroline." Newman never recorded it. No one else has ever recorded it.

Nilsson wrings every drop of the ideal emotions from every one of Newman's ten songs, adding overdubbed background vocal harmonies, sometimes serious and soaring (end of "Living Without You"), sometimes imbued with the dark humor with which Newman's songs were saturated. He adds a drop of Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" in "Dayton, Ohio 1903" and finishes off "Cowboy" with a musical reference to "Midnight Cowboy", the soundtrack to which he contributed a cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking." Sprinkled throughout the album are "talk back" comments to the recording engineer and even lyrical encouragement from Newman.

Adding to the quirkiness is the back cover showing four guys "sitting" in the 1938 Graham automobile shown on the cover (head shots were pasted on a photo of the car). They are: Steve Barncard, recording engineer best known to some here for his work with The Grateful Dead and the engineer on David Crosby's "If I Could Only Remember My Name", Pat Ieraci A/K/A "Maurice" who engineered for The Jefferson Airplane and might be the "Pompatus of Love" guy to whom Steve Miller once referred, Michael Leary and Allen Zentz. All four plus Nilsson were required to mix the album because despite what sounds like a simple production, was an incredibly complex one that to correctly mix took the talents and endurance of all of them.

Best of all, here is the beauty of Nilsson's voice, recorded closely miked and sans effects or reverb. He's right on the mic and right in your room for most of it. His performances are astonishingly complex and ever-changing. The more often you listen the more that's revealed and the more you will appreciate. Doing so is made easy by a superb set of basic piano and vocal tracks, deft splicing and of course the overdubbed Nilsson chorale background singers.

Finding a quiet original, issued in 1970 when PVC was in short supply, is difficult. In fact, given the album's lack of success, finding an original period is not easy, so this reissue is welcome. It is very, very well done. Though not quite as transparent as the original, that is more than made up for by the ultra-quiet Pallas pressing. The original I have has a low level noise throughout caused by a poor vinyl formulation.

It's a short album. The reissue is costly. The cover art (the cover is by Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean fame) doesn't come close to the original: it's somewhat blurry, and the colors are off, but I so recommend this reissue. Sonically it's as good as it can get and you'll never tire of listening to it. I've got forty three years and counting and still loving it.

Music Direct Buy It Now

AQ Shane's picture

Love Nilsson and yet didn't, know this was available! It's great that you cover "off the beaten path" titles like this so diligently!

Billf's picture

I know this is a vinyl-oriented site, but mention should be made of the release last summer of the 16 CD Nilsson box set of all of his RCA albums (including the Newman one), with bonus tracks for each, plus three more CDs of unreleased stuff. Although his later albums are not as consistent as the earlier ones due to his well-reported personal issues, the reasonably priced box is beautifully done and the musical rewards are manifest. Highly recommended. Consumer tip: much cheaper if you order it from amazon.co.uk!

sanchezj4's picture

You may have noticed that all of the current pressings of Nilsson sings Newman are defective. There is a "staticy distortion" near the end of "Love Story." I emailed speakers corner and they acknowledge the problem and hope to correct it for the second pressing. I know it is a small defect but this album is important to me.

sanchezj4's picture

Good afternoon,

thank you very much for your mail - I am sorry that you have reason to complain about the manufacturing quality of one of our releases.

I was able to find the problem you're describing, it's both on our archive sample and testpressing. I'd assume a metal plating problem on either the negative, the positive or the stamper. To investigate this further, we'd have to wait for the next pressing run which is still some time ahead - I'd assume till the end of the year.
This is clearly a manufacturing problem we have to take the responsibility for, respectively Pallas, and I apologize that this has slipped trough our quality control. On the other hand, it's too minor to recall this pressing run, so for the time being we are unable to supply a better copy, unfortunately.

All I can offer is to return the LP to your dealer for full refund - please enclose this conversation. The other option is that we talk again at the end of the year when another pressing run is ahead.

I am sorry for the inconvenience and remain with best regards,
Kai Seemann

Michael Fremer's picture

Kai is an honorable man for sure. I will have to listen to my copy to hear if it's there. Probably is but so I don't know how I missed it....

DigMyGroove's picture

Fist off Michael, thank you for bringing this album to my attention. It was my entry portal into the full body of Nilsson's music, and oh what a great place to start! I'm writing this long past when your review was published, prompted by my great luck this week purchasing a sealed original pressing on Ebay for...$32! Delighted to say it sounds wonderful, and does not suffer from noisy vinyl issues. After I read your review I first purchased the 2008 CD reissue (Buddha 74465 99703 2). I also bought the Speakers Corner LP, but much to my surprise preferred the CD, it really is well mastered IMHO. I should add that the CD contained in the wonderful Nilsson CD box set does not sound quite as good as the Buddha release to my ears. The auction in which I found the LP was like a micro version of the collection you wrote about organizing this week. In this case that of a former FM radio executive. In addition to the Nilsson LP I also won auctions for sealed copies of a 1974 repress of Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman (Columbia , NY pressing), and the 1967 Monarch repress of The Doors first album (featuring the Gold Record seal on the cover), that one for only $58!

BigReg's picture

Review is pretty bang on - stunning piece of work, but I've just had a delivery from Amazon (uk) 4th Jan 2016 - and the fault in Love Story last verse is there still, so beware, it ruins the end of that track.
At the price this was sadly it has to go back, it is premium priced over here ($45), so a built in mastering error is not good. Not sure if it ever got re-pressed and corrected but Amazons UK stock is faulty

BigReg's picture

So I returned it to Amazon - zero problems with that - good returns service as ever.
I emailed Speakers Corner asking if it had been repressed yet (it hasn't) - I received a very fair reply offering to swap it when a new press was made, or try and re-buy as not all copies were faulty. They also asked me to support their distributor - Pure Pleasure - in the UK.
So I pre-emailed PurePleasure, and they agreed to play/check it before despatch.
It's arrived - it's perfect - it's ruddy brilliant.
From disappointment to ultra pleasure in a few painless steps.
Good companies - ruddy great piece of vinyl!
Also added in Randy Crawford's Raw Silk and the Mono of Little Girl Blue as a treat as well.
Nilsson Sings Newman is a bit special. Get a perfect pressing and it is a delight.