To state the obvious: today's youthquake cultural product revolves around flea-market chic (especially early '70s) and endless pastiche. While negative for our common culture, sometimes this effect is good ... for reissues.
The Swedish-American singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, best known for "Without You" and "Everybody's Talkin'," had one of the most serendipitous and strangest-ever pop careers. And this coming summer is being earmarked by RCA/Legacy for the late maverick's reclamation (hear rock critics and hipsters everywhere poising their fingers over their keyboards). These reissues have already come over the transom: Son of Schmilsson (***1/2), A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (***) and Everybody's Talkin': the Very Best of Harry Nilsson (***1/2).
For an artist whose songs are rather ubiquitous while he himself is hardly a household name, Nilsson managed to: work with the original King of Pop, Phil Spector; befriend the Beatles (one of rock's most notorious episodes involves his and John Lennon's drunken escapades in LA); record an album's worth of Randy Newman songs before that LA songwriter came to notoriety; own the London flat where both Cass Elliott and Keith Moon died; and have his novelty calypso "Coconut" retooled for the recent Coke with lime ads.
Nilsson also rolled with or supplied songs to Fred Astaire, the Monkees, the Yardbirds, Marianne Faithfull and so on, but he ought to be remembered for the purity of his multi-octave voice and the consistent anti-commercialism he showed for someone with an office at RCA. Nilsson had his first songwriting success in 1963, penning a song for Little Richard who, apocrypha has it, remarked to him, "My! You sing good for a white boy!" (No word yet on whether the Georgia Peach will repeat this episode in the forthcoming Nilsson doc, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him?)). Although Nilsson's most celebrated songs were equally significant for their originators ("Everybody's Talkin'" by Fred Neil, "Without You" by Badfinger), the songwriter also hit some originals out of the park, chiefly "One" -- famously covered by Three Dog Night and later Aimee Mann on the Magnolia soundtrack. He also was way ahead of his 1960s rock peers, with 1973's A Little Touch consisting of a selection of pop standards from Irving Berlin and Kalmar & Ruby, sung before an orchestra. Take that, Rod Stewart.
Eighties LA pop-rock queen Susanna Hoffs (ex-Bangles) and '90s indie popsmith Matthew Sweet (of Girlfriend fame) doubtless worship at the altar of Nilsson and his classic rock milieu, although they cover none of his tunes on their new CD. From the retro, folk-boom album art to liner notes by Van Dyke Parks and photos by CSN lensman Henry Diltz, Under the Covers vol. 1 (Shout! Factory; **1/2) fetishizes both the Swinging Sixties and 33 1/3 long-players. Even Television's Richard Lloyd and ex-Voidoid Ivan Julian sit in on guitars, linking the Blank Generation to the Woodstock Nation.
As a radio baby, I can admire the range of Sweet and Hoffs' project, from the Beatles ("And Your Bird Can Sing") to Linda Ronstadt's Stone Poneys ("Different Drum") to the Zombies ("Care of Cell #44"). What I cannot forgive is taking on two of the greatest and most perfect rock songs ever -- Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" and Love's "Alone Again Or" -- and performing giddy karaoke instead of messing with the maverick mix. Sadly, this signals why the renewed vigor of pop nostalgia -- evoked everywhere from T.I.'s hit "What You Do" (referencing Jimi Hendrix' "Hey Joe") to Michael Bolton's new Sinatra disc -- will not likely produce any artists on order of Harry Nilsson.
Even the Olympians of Motown are content to regurgitate past laurels. The smart-stepping, assembly-line ethos of the label formerly known as Hitsville has finally entered its end zone, producing such lackluster collections as the 'Bammy-bred Temptations' Reflections (New Door/UME;**). The once-tempting Tempts are now a franchise band filled with subs, so it's not surprising that the performances are generally OK but undistinguished. This CD's revelation is that the theoretically foolproof Motown catalog can be rendered badly. Perhaps classics like "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" and "Ooh Baby Baby" have simply been done to death. The only stirring cover is (shock) the Jackson 5's bubblegum ballad "Never Can Say Goodbye." Stick with the Funk Brothers for revivals.