Laura Nyro’s “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” at 40

November 25, 2010 – the 40th anniversary of the release of Laura Nyro’s fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Recorded in New York City in the spring of 1970, the album was released that November and soon rose to #51 on the American Billboard album chart. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a holiday-themed record; it’s not, and her label bosses did try to explain that including “Christmas” in the title would be misleading, but Nyro, who had bowed to the wishes of her “superiors” during her early recording sessions in 1966, was not going to let the same thing happen and remained resolute.



Nyro completed her “holy trinity” of albums with the release of Christmas and the Beads of Sweat; it seemed to complete an artistic arc that she had begun with 1968’s cosmopolitan Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and continued on 1969’s dramatic, noir New York Tendaberry; indeed, it was Nyro’s last album of new material for more than five years.

Somewhat strangely, Christmas ranks as the most neglected album of Nyro’s early career – more so, even, than 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle, the acclaimed collection of soul and R&B covers recorded in Philadelphia with Gamble and Huff on production duties and vocal trio Labelle on harmonies. It is also seen by some as the weak link of the trilogy of deeply intense, original works Nyro fashioned at the peak of her creativity in her early twenties. In reality, there is no such ‘weak link’ – Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is home to several extraordinary Nyro originals. But, granted, it may not possess quite the breathtaking originality of Eli or Tendaberry.

The reason for this is perhaps because it does not really bring many new elements to the table – by now, Nyro’s trademarks, such as her tempo and rhythmic changes, her distinctive piano lines, her multi-octave vocal swoops, had become familiar. That doesn’t mean they somehow worsened or became tiresome, but there is not the monumental leap between predecessor New York Tendaberry and Christmas that there was between 1967 debut More Than A New Discovery and Eli, and then between Eli and Tendaberry.

Instead, Christmas can perhaps be described as an amalgam of Eli and Tendaberry in that it is divided between joyous, uplifting soulful pop songs and more expansive, experimental, piano-driven epics. Christmas has its own distinctive flavour in that it is more exotic and Oriental-sounding than its predecessors; there are subtle Latin inflections in the rhythms and arrangement of “Blackpatch,” and of course the Oriental arrangement and melodic structure of “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp” and aquatic harp lines in “Map to the Treasure.” This softer and more exotic sound would resurface on 1976’s Smile; if there is a new element added to Nyro’s sound on this album, then this is it – an Oriental bent, a gospel mellowness. It’s a subtle addition but definitely gives the record its own distinct sound.

The original album was split with two bands playing on the different sides. This was not pre-arranged but, as producers Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin explained, just happened that way. The first side features the accompaniment of the Swampers band from Muscle Shoals, lending the songs an easygoing feel, while the second side features an array of musicians including Duane Allman on electric guitar on “Beads of Sweat” and Alice Coltrane on harp. As a result, the album as a whole is perhaps not as unified as Eli or Tendaberry, and maybe suffers for that reason, but the individual songs are first-rate. (And the semi-conceptual ‘four seasons’ arc to Side B is a four-song wonder.)

“Brown Earth” is a gloriously uplifting gospel-soul number that doesn’t really sound like any other Laura Nyro original; it rises from almost whispered verses to a rousing hook of “white dove’s gonna come today / oh what a morning / it feels so good / oh what a morning / of brotherhood,” with a multi-tracked choir of soulful, impassioned Nyros singing on the “white dove” and “oh what a morning” lines. If anything, the gospel soul sound is almost a precursor to her next project, the covers album Gonna Take a Miracle. In any case, it’s a glorious, effective opener, with beautifully conventional yet effective piano lines.

The following “When I Was A Freeport and You Were the Main Drag” is more upbeat and features the return of Nyro’s familiar syncopated piano lines; it also displays her oft-missed sense of humour. An album like New York Tendaberry was more intent on dramatics and theatrics than humour, so “Freeport” is a welcome change of tone for Nyro; it’s also a bolder, sassier, feistier Nyro on this song than the “delicate romantic” some seem to perceive her to be. The song is incredibly melodic and, in its effervescent abandon, catchy as hell and among her best in this up-tempo, jaunty category, featuring such jewel lines as “I got a lot of patience baby / that’s a lot of patience to lose.”

The laidback, easygoing feel continues into the Latin-accented “Blackpatch,” a joyous mid-tempo snapshot of a day in the life of a city woman, maybe Nyro herself. Only Nyro could make such everyday events as sending out party invitations and hanging out the washing sound beautiful and energised, but she ends the song with a knowing lyric, “womanchild on a sidestreet / flashing in blackpatch / lipstick on her reefer / waiting for a match.” Nyro’s poetry is incredibly evocative and unique, but the words fit remarkably into ultra-catchy pop melodies, which is one of her finest skills. “Blackpatch” boasts one of the most effortless and sophisticated pop-soul melodies on the album, and its arrangement, incorporating horns and congas, is tasteful and imaginative.

The tone of the album changes drastically on the six-minute piano epic “Been on a Train,” Nyro’s second “train” song about hard drugs, following from “Poverty Train,” which she debuted at June 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. “Been on a Train” is looser than its predecessor, moodier and more intense. Nyro’s detached vocal delivery on the verses is chilling, while her piano lines are much simpler than normal, putting the spotlight onto her lyrics. The song unexpectedly but dramatically changes gears when Nyro’s voice rises to a gospel soar – “you got more tracks on you baby, than the tracks of this train” – before she screams out, “No! No! Damn you mister!” in her inimitable theatrical New York Tendaberry style, before leaping into a feverish tempo change, only to settle back into the moodiness of the verses again. Its placement amid the uplifting, soulful pop songs of side one is all the more effective and for that reason, “Been on a Train” is a standout. But as a song in its own right, it remains peerlessly effective (and four decades on, harrowing and hard-hitting) as a portrait of a heroin addict, possibly influenced by the death of Nyro’s cousin from a heroin overdose in October 1969.

The mood switches back from the darkness and despair of “Been on a Train” to a sense of easygoing, romantic uplift for “Up on the Roof” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King – at that time, the very first cover version Nyro had recorded. It fits right into the mood, though, and it’s not a stretch to think of it as a Nyro original. More conventional, perhaps, but melodically it has something in common with Nyro originals. It’s a great performance with a beautiful arrangement, and was selected as the album’s single in the autumn of 1970. Ironically, this cover version became Nyro’s biggest hit in her own right, Nyro being famed as a successful songwriter for other artists.

Side two is more expansive and exotic. It begins with the superb “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp,” one of Nyro’s finest songs. It is musically sophisticated, with a beautiful Oriental-inspired arrangement and one of Nyro’s most haunting and evocative piano melodies. Her vocal performance is also top-notch, as are the poetic lyrics, which detail a “sleepy woman by the window / dreaming in the morning air / of the man who takes her sweetness / by a Chinese lamp upstairs.” It’s gorgeous, romantic, and sensual, and an album highlight. It then segues into an eight-minute epic, “Map to the Treasure,” which opens with Alice Coltrane’s watery, exotic harp, which resurfaces at some points throughout the song. “Map to the Treasure” is a mood piece, really, with wispy verses that give way to an extended and memorable piano solo that gradually increases in speed and intensity, before Nyro comes back with the vocal hook, “in the treasure of love,” only to fade away again. It is sensual, as with “Chinese Lamp,” but sexual too (“for you I bear down / soft and burning”), and the music mirrors the excitement of sex.

“Beads of Sweat” is next; it starts in much the same way as “Map to the Treasure,” with a cooing Nyro intoning over a barely-there piano, “cold jade wind…” but then surges into the most driving, hard-rocking song Nyro ever recorded. Its closest relative is “Eli’s Comin’,” which shares much of the same lyrical conceit and same musical urgency, but “Beads of Sweat,” featuring Duane Allman on guitar, is probably harder-rocking and just as intense. It’s an unexpected change of pace for Nyro but is another strong composition with several hooks. It has a kind of gospel fervour that marks it out as one of Nyro’s most inspired and original efforts.

The album closes with another epic, the seven-minute “Christmas In My Soul,” a poem Nyro set to music. It is unfortunate that Nyro ended the album on a disappointingly earnest note; it is the first real place where Nyro explores political matters – she sings of “the sins of politics, the politics of sin” – and her specific detailing of the Chicago Seven and “Black Panther brothers” dates the song and forces it into a corner, so to speak. It has little in common with the evocative, imaginative, successful poetic lyrics Nyro was writing in other songs at the time. Musically, too, it is rather overbearing, with some misplaced bells and military drums overstating the point. The melody is not one of Nyro’s most illuminating, and her vocal is pitched firmly in the upper register throughout, which makes the song a little hard work. It retains a sense of drama and ambition that is pleasing to see, but other songs on the album are also dramatic and ambitious – “Been on a Train” and “Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp”/”Map to the Treasure,” for instance – but are also wholly successful. “Christmas In My Soul” is a suitably epic end to the album, but it’s actually one of the weaker and less successful songs here.

Laura Nyro probably did not intend to “retire” from the music business after this album. In concerts in 1970-72, she was performing some new songs that had not yet been recorded – “I Am the Blues,” “American Dove,” “Children of the Junks,” “Mother Earth” – that suggest she was still thinking of making a record of new songs. Instead, she did a record of oldies in 1971 before marrying and leaving the spotlight for four years. But in truth, the extraordinary twin peaks of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry represent a level of intense creativity that probably left Nyro understandably exhausted. At 22, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is probably the sound of a woman relaxing just a little, cooling off after two or three years of intense, passionate music. That’s not to say that Christmas does not fit that category – you would be hard-pressed to find songs as intense or passionate as “Been on a Train,” “Map to the Treasure,” or “Beads of Sweat” – but there is a certain softening in the sound here that suggests Nyro’s artistry was subtly changing. Indeed, “Christmas In My Soul” looks outward for largely the first time, and when Nyro returned in 1976, she was writing more about political and social concerns as well as writing about her personal life. So, in a sense, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat represents a crucial turning point in Laura Nyro’s music – it closes the chapter on her first period of original songs (and what a purple patch it was), and at the same time hints at her artistic evolution to come. As an album in its own right, it deserves more praise as being one of Nyro’s finest and most enduring efforts and is a worthy final act of an extraordinary trilogy. And 40 years later, it still shines bright.


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PJ Harvey returns with “Let England Shake” teased us with an “announcement coming November 23rd” announcement and today we learned that Feb.14, 2011 will see the release of Harvey’s eighth solo studio album Let England Shake.

It’s been a long time coming, written and demoed even before the release of 2009’s John Parish collaboration A Woman A Man Walked By, and recorded this spring in a Dorset church. Word is that it’s “dark” and “terrifying,” but Harvey has also made reference to its “energy” and “vitality” to the NME, describing it as “uplifting.” All words that we like in PJH land.

The two songs we’ve heard that presumably will be included – “Let England Shake” and “The Last Living Rose” – seemed to suggest a move away from the spectral piano ghost-balladry of 2007’s White Chalk but we can be sure that something somewhat fresh and new is coming, such is the Peej loath to repeat herself.

It will be interesting hearing more news trickle out over the next three months. Her last February-released album was 1995’s classic To Bring You My Love – an omen? We will see.

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Song of the Day: Judee Sill – “The Pearl”

This wonderful performance of “The Pearl,” from an early 1973 episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test, was recently rebroadcast as part of BBC4’s Singer/Songwriters season, and finds Judee Sill in spellbinding form. It’s gorgeous, sparse, and haunting. And look at her guitar playing!

Thanks to YouTube user wilfridthesiger for uploading it.

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Song of the Day: Amy Winehouse – “It’s My Party”

She’s performed live reasonably regularly, but documents from the studio are a rare occurrence for Amy Winehouse these days – and her cover of Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “It’s My Party” marks the first new studio recording release from the singer since 2007, when she delivered some of the bonus tracks that made it onto the Back to Black reissue.

The original is a pleasant, quite pretty song in the early ’60s girl group pop style beloved of Winehouse, but in this version – for a new Quincy Jones tribute record – she bends and twists the phrasing almost beyond recognition, but to my ears it works quite wonderfully. It’s not a boring, phoned-in vocal; it’s ragged, yes, and rough, and imperfect, but its imperfections and jagged edges only enhance the personality and drama of Winehouse’s vocal.

The musical backing is a tasteful, warm, analog ’60s pastiche a la the Ronson/Remi-helmed Back to Black, which is now some four years old. It gives a tantalising insight into what Winehouse’s eagerly-awaited third LP might sound like, but even more tantalising is hearing what her voice sounds like now, after the last four years of hard living.

Reports of this song have been bandied about since 2008, but it seems that work finally came to fruition in recording sessions this summer (2010), so it’s reasonable for us to believe that this is a newly-recorded vocal from the singer, which would put her at 26 this summer. It’s quite a shock to think this is the voice of a 26-year-old; the tone and power is akin to her soulful, forceful Back to Black voice, but in the vibrato it has taken on a much rougher-edged quality (listen to the way she sings the drawn-out “you” in “if it happened to you”) that has come with the years of crack and heroin abuse. Billie Holiday has long been a comparison point for Winehouse both in style and in private pursuits, and it’s not too much of a stretch to make that comparison here.

It’s feasible that Winehouse was, shall we say, under the influence during the recording sessions – there’s a frailty and fragility to this performance, with its liberal manipulation of timing and phrasing, but it shows that the voice is still there, the personality is still there, and the wonderful uniqueness is still there.

I look forward to that elusive third album greatly.

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The joys of horror cinema

I was going to say “lately I’ve been into horror films,” as if trying to tie it in with this Halloween-y time of year, and it’s true that the longer, dark nights and cold, icy weather are perhaps more conducive to fully appreciating the beauty of the horror genre, but really I love these often mysterious, psychological-oriented films all year round – when done well, of course. I’m not talking about cheaply, badly-done slasher movies or sub-par zombie flicks. There are some pillars of the genre that I adore – Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now – but I’ll focus for now on a few that I’ve rewatched recently, or seen for the first time in some cases.

There seemed to be something of a vogue for creepy “possessed child” movies in the ’60s and ’70s, and after Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist came The Omen which had a marketing budget substantially larger than its filming budget, playing up to the “6-6-6” theme (advance screenings were held on June 6, 1976.)

For me, Rosemary’s Baby is far and away the most superior of the three films (which aren’t related in story or personnel, anyway) but The Omen has its moments. The decapitation scene is marvellous, as is the oddly joyful surprise death of Damien’s initial nanny. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick are great in their roles, and Billie Whitelaw threatens to the steal the show as the supremely unsettling Mrs Baylock. It’s hard to criticise Harvey Stephens since he was barely five at the time of filming, but I didn’t find Damien particularly convincing.

As with The Exorcist, the moments of sheer horror are quite few and far between and the bulk of the film is taken up with far-flung visits to try and get to the bottom of, in this case, the effect Damien has on those around him. It’s a good film but it’s not a cinematic masterpiece. Certainly, all horror fans should watch it.

Ingmar Bergman’s Vargtimmen, or Hour of the Wolf, is an altogether more different and subtly unsettling prospect; it possesses a number of Bergman trademarks (direct address to the camera, atmospheric Swedish village setting) but has a strange, somewhat disturbing psychological bent all its own.

The film seems to be a musing on the perceived madness of Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) but, by the end, the viewer is left wondering just who is mad or beset by demons, and indeed whether the demons are imaginary or real. To compound the sense of disturbance and dislocation, various strange surrealist moments are injected into the film, lending it an off-kilter, experimental feel.

The performances are uniformly excellent, and Ingrid Thulin is almost unrecognisable here as the temptress Veronica Vogler compared to her comparatively dowdy schoolteacher in the earlier Winter Light. Bergman often worked with the same actors but they all give wonderfully diverse performances.

Various haunting moments stand out, including the episode between von Sydow and the young boy on the rocks, the passionate argument between von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as his wife Alma in the forest, the creepy soiree at the castle, and Naima Wifstrand as the “Old Lady with Hat,” who provides one of the film’s most memorable and quietly horrific moments.

It’s a strange, atmospheric 84 minutes and the sort of film that rewards repeated viewing.

The same can be said of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. More a slow-burning, subtle psychological study than a fully-fledged horror, The Innocents is wonderfully understated and quietly creepy as it unfolds. It’s a mostly very faithful adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, which is just as mysterious and suggestive (especially of the relationship between the “deceased” Quint and Miss Jessel and the children Miles and Flora), and the team working on the film did a great job in capturing the essence of the mystery of the story.

We’re never quite sure whether Quint or Miss Jessel are dead or alive, or whether governess Miss Giddens (unnamed in the book) (Deborah Kerr) is hallucinating; part of the beauty of Kerr’s performance is that the viewer identifies with her calmness, her goodness, her rationality – which makes the questions that arise at the end of the film even more unsettling.

Megs Jenkins as the kindly Mrs. Grose is the glue that keeps the film together, and Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin give excellent performances as the young children – two of the best child actors you could hope to see on screen.

It’s a film that is especially memorable for its haunting black-and-white cinematography, gorgeous setting, and chilling soundtrack, where the sound of chirruping birds suddenly cuts in and out. One of the finest in the psychological/mystery genre.

Four decades later, the novella was revived and taken as a reference point for a different adaptation, Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar’s The Others. It’s a brilliantly atmospheric, austere, unsettling haunted house mystery, with Nicole Kidman giving one of her best performances. It’s beautifully shot and gets the level of creepiness just right to be an effective film in the mystery/horror/thriller style.

Altogether different is zombie movie Night of the Living Dead. On a first viewing, it impresses with its grainy black-and-white cinematography, level of intensity, and almost documentary style quality. It’s perhaps a little too long, and after the gripping opening sequence, where Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) visit their father’s grave, only to be chased away by a zombie, it doesn’t quite maintain that level of engagement – but it’s quite probably one that would improve upon a second viewing.

Then there are a couple of classics that merge horror with the teen movie. Halloween is an iconic horror that deserves all the praise, and you can trace a plethora of similar horror/slasher films (yes, Scream) back to here. A lot of it is actually set in the daytime and it makes for iconic viewing. The perpetrator Michael Myers is creepy throughout, and the murder methods inventive (and scary.) There are numerous memorable scenes, from the telephone cord killing to John Michael Graham’s uncurling toes as the life drains away. It maintains the intensity and the hour and a half flies by. One of the most important classics of the genre.

But arguably even better is Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which brings horror to the teen genre as it tracks the trials and tribulations of its titular ‘heroine,’ the maligned and victimised Carrie White.

Most of the “horror” derives from Carrie’s telekinesis, the power to move objects through sheer force of mind, and initially it seems like something of an undeveloped sub-plot – but the film’s denouement could not be achieved without this strange feature.

But the core of the film is based around Carrie’s relationship with her fellow high school students and her overzealous, fanatical mother, played to absolute perfection by Piper Laurie. The majority of the film’s creepy, unsettling quality revolves around Laurie’s portrayal of Margaret White and the White home, which is like a Christian shrine. It’s a claustrophobic world Carrie inhabits, but schoolteacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) leaps to her defence and is one of the few “nice” characters in the film.

Buckley, Laurie, and Sissy Spacek as Carrie give memorable performances, as do the other cast of high school students. While Carrie ostensibly weds the horror and teen movie genres, it’s also really quite remarkably sad, with only the redemptive resolution keeping the viewer from descending into a deep melancholy over the treatment of Carrie. It all adds up to an engrossing film that bears repeated viewing.

And I haven’t stopped there. I’m still going through my horror collection and discovering new favourites, and when you surrender to it, horror does not have to be gimmicky or cheesy. Most of the films listed above bear that out.

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