I'll just say it: I can't stand Laura Nyro. I've been trying to figure out what it is about this record that doesn't work for me, but it's as simple as that. Its accomplished mix of soul, tin pan alley, heartfelt emotion and deeply felt alto clarity of voice do not impress me. The sensitive instrumentation and production panache are aimed at someone who isn't me. I'm used to accommodating records and letting them be themselves but I just need to draw the line somewhere.
The liner notes on this record, More Than a New Discovery, explain that the first reason you need to like her is that Arthur Mogull ("Artie") "discovered" her, and apparently he also "discovered" Dylan*.
<sarcasm>Ooooohhhhhhh! Bob Dylan! I am sooooooo impressed.</sarcasm>
Ok so she's not Dylan, fair enough, but the guy who "discovered" her goes by "Artie" and the whole thing just kind of feels like old guys with tin ears foisting their weird conceptions on the world. Like, Hanna-Barbera, you know? I mean really, does anyone really think Snaggletooth is funny? Did kids really respond to that crap in the 60s?
The counts against Laura Nyro:
- Early in her singer/songwriter career, there was talk of her being the vocalist for Blood, Sweat & Tears, whose Blood, Sweat & Tears 3, which contains multiple Laura Nyro covers, is possibly my least favorite album, but only constitutes their third worst crime against music, the first two being their tasteless name (body fluids - yum!) and their actual singer's proto-Eddie-Vedder atrociousness.
- The first real concert I can remember going to was when I was about 15 or 16, and my mom took me to see Laura Nyro at this little converted movie theater, and she sloshed and slathered her overflowing bucket of piano glurge for two hours, and the whole time this one lady a few rows back from us kept on saying "Go Laura!" in a voice that started out sad, and over the course of the concert, became plaintive, and ended up downright despondent.
- "Tin Pan Alley"
From the general down to the specific complaints: this album (her first - More Than a New Discovery, which would later be reissued as First Songs to capitalize on the moderate fame she would achieve as a pop songwriter over the next few years) closes with a track called "California Shoe-Shine Boys" that features, yes, banjo, and joyfully proclaims over a riverboat jive, "California shoe-shine boys, you can shine my shoes!"
So I wonder why this particular song makes me so profoundly uncomfortable. I grimace and feel kind of ill when I hear it.
I figured it out! Banjos plus shoe shining plus "tin pan alley" equals trigger concepts. The history of race in America. I'm a white liberal, so I'm terrified of triggers like these - just the words "shoe-shine" are enough to make me cringe a little bit. I cringe because these directionless, non-specific symbols aren't overtly hostile in this context, because I'm an onlooker but not an intended victim of the virulence of the power-holders in the scenario where the symbols become overtly hostile, and because it just makes me feel icky inside.
And this feeling really is inside me, too. As I mentioned in a previous post (which was itself about the perpetuation of un-criticized notions of race inherent in the song selection on a particularly banjo-y children's record, and how those notions could have shaped the mental landscape of the kids that heard them, sponge-like), that Blood, Sweat & Tears record was the only pop record my parents had. I don't know if my mom was actually a Laura Nyro fan, if she even knew of the BST connection or even remembered owning a BST record, or if she just got hyped into taking me to that show in the late 80s, but the fact is there: she did. These things aren't evil. They are the mainstream, or a particular, un-controversial side eddy from that stream. They're an unremarkable part of our artistic and cultural legacy, just like Mrs. Butterworth, lawn jockeys and those Bugs Bunny cartoons - you know the ones. The symbols are more coded and more deeply buried, but they are there, and we still have to understand what they mean.
Ok, I need to back up a minute. I'm not accusing Laura Nyro of being a racist, and even less so Blood, Sweat & Tears, who don't even cover that particularly difficult song. I'm just saying she has shitty music, and so does Blood, Sweat, & Tears, and, on a separate but possibly related note, banjos should be approached with caution, as should "tin pan alley". The main stream has racist eddies.
You know who else my mom was really into the Seventies and Eighties, and who does the vaudeville schtick with the banjos and the riverboats and stuff? Neil Diamond. For some reason he doesn't make me cringe though - I kind of love his music. I even love the super icky stuff that creeps in - like when he belts out "Sing it like a black man!" in "Free Life" from the Tap Root Manuscript album (or that concert my wife and I saw on PBS about five years ago where old, crusty Neil french-kissed a woman who was in the front row of his show - YES! I KNOW!!!). He's just as clueless as Laura about the race stuff - probably even more so. I think what's going on is that I'm just giving him a pass cause I like his music, and I can't stand Laura Nyro's.
I have a lot of Laura Nyro albums (I picked them up out of curiousity when I had a record store - she was my first concert, after all), and now I want to listen to them all and see if I hate them as much as this one. I suspect I will. Maybe it's a guy thing. I like to think I'm pretty in touch with my feelings, as guys go, but Laura's rocking a pretty estrogen-y vibe, and I'm guessing the collaboration with Labelle isn't going to change my mind.
She seems like a really nice lady, though. It's too bad I have to complain so much about her music. In the spirit of fairness, I'll end on a positive note, with some things I like about her.
Points in Laura Nyro's favor:
- The big hit off this album, "Wedding Bell Blues", is catchy, pretty, poignant and kind of awesome, Brill Building style pop, with a crashing inevitability in the melody, a desperate longing in the lyrics that's somehow happy and not infused with the heavy sadness of most of her other songs.
- She wrote "Stoned Soul Picnic", famously covered by the Fifth Dimension, which, though hazier and more, um, stoned than "Wedding Bell Blues" (but less stoned than, say, "Good Vibrations"), is a pretty great primary document of the freedom those boomers felt in their precious Sixties of yore, and asks the question, "Can you surry, can you picnic?"
- She was born Laura Nigro.
*So Dylan has a legitimately great first 2-3 albums, and released the punkest Christmas album ever in 2008, and is a generally awesomely curmudgeonly dude, but mostly, I'm sorry, really I am, but Dylan doesn't really work for me.