Review: Harry Nilsson - The RCA Records Collection

Harry Nilsson, or just plain "Nilsson" as he was often billed, is one of those musicians whose influence has grown deeper years after his initial success.

There have been tribute albums, a documentary and reissues padded out with lost tracks in the past, but Nilsson's cult credibility has now grown significantly enough to create a market for this: One of the largest box set collections ever dedicated to a solo pop artist.

If you think about it, Nilsson was one of the early singer-songwriters. He emerged in the late 1960s and had some of his biggest hits in the early 1970s, right around the time the likes of James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell started turning up.

Yet his music was richer, more diverse and poppier. And maybe that's why it's been discovered and rediscovered by a couple of succeeding generations of fans.

Containing 17 disks, the RCA Records Collection includes everything Nilsson recorded for the label, and nearly everything he recorded, period. You need only pickup Spotlight on Nilsson, recorded before he signed to RCA, and Flash Harry, his final LP issued post RCA, and you've pretty much got the whole works. If you need it. Which is a fair question even with just the RCA box.

Don't get me wrong, there's loads of good stuff in this box, which is a fairly basic package considering the amount of music it contains. Along with the CDs, which come nicely packed in replica LP covers, you get a thick, informative booklet, but that's it. No hardcover nothing, no stickers, no frills.

So, the focus in mainly music, which is just fine. Like most box sets, the best stuff comes early on.

Nilsson's first three albums -- Pandemonium Shadow Show, Aerial Ballet and Harry -- are all pretty much of a piece. They have a circus-y, baroque pop atmosphere, with lots of beautiful, swirling keyboard, string and horn arrangements by George Tipton. Nilsson's vocals are spectacular -- music and melodies just flowed from the man, who -- to my taste -- is one of American popular music's  best male singers, right up there with Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

Yet, Nilsson's wasn't just a solo voice. His recordings feature zillions of overdubs, so what you hear is him harmonizing with himself in a voice of tremendous range and freedom. He sounded a bit like a one-man Beach Boys. It's easy to see why John Lennon called Nilsson his favorite "group."

All three of these early albums are gems, featuring numerous classic Nilsson songs: "Without Her," "Cuddly Toy" (later recorded by the Monkees); the heartbreaking, autobiographical song of failed fatherhood "1941"; "Good Old Desk"; a cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin','" which became Nilsson's first big hit when featured on the  "Midnight Cowboy" soundtrack; "One," a Nilsson original that became a huge hit for Three Dog Night," and "Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear," an early cover of a Randy Newman tune. There are also tremendous covers of three Beatles' tracks: "You Can't Do That," which includes references to several other Fab songs; "She's Leaving Home," and "Mother Nature's Son." Each of these early LPs is packed with extra tracks and rarities, and the first two are presented in both stereo and mono.

After this initial pop period, Nilsson ventured into new territory, with another succession of fine albums: Nilsson Sings Newman, an entire LP of tunes by Harry's then little-known friend, Randy; The Point, an original children's fable with songs and narration that later became a TV special seen by nearly every American kid in the 1970s, including me; and the odd but engaging "best of" package Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, which included different, altered and sometimes new versions of songs that appeared on Nilsson's first three LPs.

Then come the big 70s albums, which spawned a number of hit radio singles and made Nilsson a major star. Nilsson Schmilsson is the best of these, featuring the self-penned radio smash "Coconut" along with the enormo-hit cover version of Badfinger's "Without You." The album is a showcase for Nilsson's diverse vocal talents, ranging from mellow pop tunes to emotional ballads and the rocking "Jump into the Fire." This guy could sing pretty much anything.

Son of Schmilsson is appropriately named, as it's much in the same mold as its predecessor and includes a few more great tunes, including the tender, nostalgic "Remember (Christmas)" and the lovely "Turn on Your Radio."

A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night sees the singer moving away from original material to record a standards album, and it's a beauty. Accompanied by a full orchestra and arrangements by the great Gordon Jenkins, the recording demonstrates just how on par Nilsson is with those other great America singers mentioned above. In this expanded version, you not only get the singer's interpretations of "It Had to Be You," "Makin' Whoopee" and "As Time Goes By," but a further half dozen standards that only appeared at the time on a German EP titled A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night.

From here, unfortunately, things begin to go downhill. Pussycats, produced by John Lennon and featuring the former Beatle singing along on several tracks, is rated poorly by most fans of both men. But it's not completely terrible.

"Don't Forget Me," stands as one of Nilsson's best and most moving originals, and I like the energy on the Harry'n'John version of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." But other tracks, such as the dismal version of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" are negligible. Abusing both substances and his voice during this period, Nilsson sounds hoarse through most of the LP. Allegedly egged-on by Lennon to engage in "screaming contests," you start to hear Nilsson's beautiful voice start to fray. In fact, after this LP, it was never the same.

Neither was the songwriting. The rest of the LPs in this set all demonstrate a drastic lowering of quality and standards, as Nilsson sings uninspired covers of old rock'n'roll tunes and silly, dashed-off originals such as "Kojak Columbo" and "Jesus Christ, You're Tall" -- all in that hoarse, cracked shell of a once-great voice. You'd be hard-pressed to find even one tune on these final four RCA albums that hearkens back to the beauty of Nilsson's late 1960s and early 70s recordings. It's sad.

The rest of the set is taken up by three full CDs of rarities, demos and outtakes amazingly not featured on the expanded versions of each of the LPs. There are some good things here, though there's also a lot of surplus.

As a whole, the box is an embarrassment of riches and, um, embarrassments. If you get it, you'll have a whole lot of Nilsson, but also a whole lot of stuff you'll probably never listen to again. I don't see myself playing those final four LPs again any time soon. They're too depressing. Any music fan can, and should, hear all the Nilsson they need by buying the best LPs individually. But, for the curious and for completists, this set is a dream come true, despite its imperfections.