Birthday or Break Up?

Like most good people, I’m currently watching/enjoying/theorizing wildly Netflix’s Russian Doll — I’m only halfway through the season and watching sporadically, on the evenings where my brain feels up to it, so no spoilers, please. In addition to all of the many joys of watching Natasha Lyonne’s wonderfully subtle, off-kilter performance (I love the way in which she continually veers from losing it to faked-confidence, trying to convince herself as much as anyone else that she can work out what’s going on, that she’s in “control”), I’m constantly in awe of the musical choices of the show. It just sounds great.

Of course, the Harry Nilsson of it all is central, with “Gotta Get Up” playing with each reboot. It’s such a smart choice of song; the repetitive sound of the piano echoing the ways in which Nadia can’t stop returning to that point, the obvious lyrical note with “Gotta get up/Gotta get out/Gotta get home before the morning comes” seeming to explain what Nadia is going through with each successive reboot, and the fact that it’s such an earworm of a song, one that starts off being fun and addictive and then, the more and more and more you hear it, it becomes wearing and exhausting and ultimately annoying. (And I say that as someone who genuinely loves the song.)

But it was only this morning that I realized that the real lyrical key to the show was midway through the song: “There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten/We never thought it would end then, we never thought it would end/We used to carry on and drink and do the rock and roll/We never thought we’d get older/We never thought it’d grow cold, but now…” For a show that is — to the point I’ve watched, at least, like I said, I’m only halfway through the season — as much about the idea of being forced to re-evaluate behaviors and re-examine choices made to that point, it’s so on the nose, I’m amazed I missed it to this point.

Of course, wait until I catch up with the rest of the season and realize how wrong I am about it all.

366 Songs 186: I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City

If you’re thinking “This song sounds really familiar…” then that’s no accident; Harry Nilsson wrote and recorded it as something close to a rip-off of his cover version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, pretty much. There was a particular reason why, of course: In the early ’70s, the makers of the movie Midnight Cowboy had, apparently, issued something resembling an open call for submissions for its theme song during its post-production phase to replace Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin'” – used as musical stand-in during editing – for Academy Award purposes before final release. Hoping to land a lucrative deal with a song he’d actually written, Nilsson created this song to be an as-close-as-dammit contender. For whatever reason, it didn’t take – Also created for this reason, and also discarded, was Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” fact fans – and the moviemakers stuck with “Everybody’s Talkin'” for the final release. From my point of view, it was the wrong choice: I’ve always had this odd relationship with the song “Everybody’s Talkin'” – I’ve kind of liked it, but there’s always been something about it that never quite sat right with me. Thankfully, there’s this song to swoop in and save the day, providing everything I like about the Nilsson version but adding a melody and lyric that I appreciate more. I think it’s the wonderful fall during “Well, here I am Lord, knocking at your back door…” (I can’t hear that part without mentally singing along “bum bum bum BUM”).

366 Songs 051: One

As soon as you find out that “One,” apparently, came from Harry Nilsson getting a busy signal on a phone one day, that can dominate the way that you hear the song, with the repeated keyboard note dominating everything else around it, including the harpsichord and strings (and flute, I think? From 1:32, that is) that carry the weight of the song outside of Nilsson’s voice. Deetdeet deetdeet, deetdeet deetdeet, and so on.

By the time that Three Dog Night have their collective hands on the song, it’s already lost the fragility of the original version; the vocals have gone from Nilsson’s softness to the overblown rock wail of Danny Hutton, and the carefully built structure of the original is replaced by something that aims to rock you but feels scattered and as if the band has forgotten how the song actually goes, and are trying to hide it with harmony vocals (“Num-Burr!” indeed); this arrangement feels curiously at odds with the lyrical content of the song, but this was also the version that was the bigger hit, so I guess that the late ’60s kids were more willing to accept aggression from a moustachioed rockhero than melancholy from a soon-to-be carwreck.

I’m tempted to say that Aimee Mann’s version of the song – from the soundtrack of Magnola – is the one that I prefer, in a lot of ways; there’s the sadness of the Nilsson original, but also a stronger dynamic than that one, with a structure that makes more sense than the Three Dog Night version – adding in the organ and bass, as well as Jon Brion’s backing vocals (The section at 2:10 with, apparently new lyrics and melody, is just lovely), brings something to the song that feels more in tune with what the song is actually about, instead of the overblown theatrics of the Three Dog Night version.

Ultimately, I prefer the Nilsson vocals from the original, but I find myself wishing that he’d had the thought to add what Mann/Brion did in their version for some weird Voltron final version. But then, what song doesn’t have some missed opportunities down the line?

366 Songs 008: Bath

After yesterday’s Nilsson cover of Randy Newman, here’s Nilsson showing off not just his pipes, but his songwriting; I’m most fond of early Nilsson, before his voice went to shit and he stopped being more than a little orchestral with his arrangements (Although those arrangements may be more down to the producer of the early records, whose name I am completely blanking on right now), and this is a great example of that Harry – there’s just something so wonderfully happy and present about this song, so wonderfully alive, that I almost feel guilty passing on the explanation that it was apparently written about leaving a brothel. Suddenly, that line about “I’m going home to take my bath, but I’ll be back again” has a different meaning, doesn’t it…?

(Seriously, though; I love the horn arrangement, and the fact that Nilsson just ends up scatting for so much of the song. It’s something that just feels “pop,” but owes as much to soul and jazz, underscoring the weird transformative, magpie nature of this kind of thing.)

366 Songs 007: Vine Street

Of all the various versions of “Vine Street” that I’ve heard – and, as a Randy Newman fanboy, I’ve heard a lot – Harry Nilsson’s take, from the Nilsson Sings Newman album that is otherwise surprisingly missable considering the people involved, is by far my favorite. It’s not just that it starts with “Anita,” a really spectacular little pop song that’s not attached to any other version (and something that I wish Newman would expand into a full song at some point), although that’s a massive mark in its favor; instead, it’s the texture and complexity of vocals that Nilsson brings to it, the swooping loveliness that bolsters and emboldens what starts (from the actual beginning of “Vine Street” itself, the “That’s a tape/that we made”) as tired and reticent and ends up as something… what? “Happy,” perhaps, or at least something that’s stronger and more alive when remembering the past than considering the present. Listen to the power in the vocals, the way Nilsson fearlessly throws himself around the melody when he remembers his group “sitting out on the stoop/and we’d play for her/the songs she liked best to have us play” (The showmanship, the showing off, when he gets to that second “play,” it’s so wonderful), and compare that to either the timid “That’s a tape…” earlier or the end of the song, as the harmonies fall away and he’s left alone again, the voice faltering slightly… It’s an incredible performance, a complete story just in its aural quality even ignoring Newman’s lyrics.

Compare this to Newman’s demo – written, I think, for Van Dyke Parks – and, unsurprisingly, the song feels entirely different, in part because Newman at his best could never perform the same kind of vocal acrobatics that Nilsson excelled in, but there’s a tenderness in there that Nilsson is missing because he was so fucking amazing and swinging from word to word when he really got going. The end of the demo, with Newman just vamping a dramatic ending, works for me too – a kind of “fuck you, I’m done” that feels honest and in keeping with the “I’m old and I know it” nature of the rest of the song.

Here’s the version of the song that was, I think, first released, Van Dyke Parks’ version from Song Cycle… It’s filled with what we’ll call his “trademark orchestral touches,” but I can’t help but feel that it’s too orchestrated, and the song itself gets entirely lost in there, distended in prettiness and melodrama until it falls apart:

Give me Harry Nilsson any day. I can believe that that man would sit on a stoop and play, if nothing else. If only he’d played more of that “Anita” song…