Sunday, October 24, 2010

Laura Nyro: Brown Earth

The opening song from the third of the three Columbia albums that established Laura's reputation as a solo artist of uniquely individual vision, & upon which her reputation largely rests today. (Her first, for Verve, established her as a songwriter).

Laura still tends to collect devotees. I almost became one. Saw her perform twice in her prime, no band, just Laura & piano, quite magical. I loved her singing, piano playing, & gift for songwriting. I admired her innovative song forms. She was very sophisticated. But I also thought her at times lyrically murky, emotionally baffling, & I couldn't figure out what she was trying to do or say.  I liked her best when she got inside a recognizably conventional song form & stretched it almost to the breaking point, but held back just a bit. At those times, she was in an elite group of songwriters who had so mastered & internalized conventional pop song forms that they could do just about anything they wanted with them. This group included Lennon & McCartney, Jimmy Webb, Bacharach & David, Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. There are more but it is not a long list.

On "Brown Earth," essentially a gospel number, I hear producer Arif Mardin's steadying hand - which doesn't extend to the entire "Christmas" LP. The southern culture references are Laura's imagination. She was a middle class New York City girl, & the most natural influences in her songs come from Brill Building; Carole King, girl groups, AM radio of the early Sixties.

Why didn't Laura cultivate a long career as major performing diva? It was there for her. Perhaps it was just a steady income of royalty checks; & her unwillingness to summon up on demand, night after night, the emotional intensity to perform "Save the Country" & some of her other big numbers. She couldn't or wouldn't distance herself from the material.


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