When the package arrived in the mail yesterday I was temporarily overwhelmed as nearly 20 CDs poured out as I opened it. However, when I figured out my strategy for tackling this review -- of a box set compiling virtually all of Harry Nilsson's recorded output -- I sighed a long breath of relief. I mean, face it folks, the prospect of listening to all 20 CDs in a timely manner is unlikely even for a music obsessive like myself.
Instead, I started with some of my favorite Nilsson LPs to re-familiarize myself with their quirks and distinctive tonal points. One key thing audiophiles need to remember about much of Harry's music: while the music within is generally universally great, Nilsson unfortunately recorded at a period of time when RCA was breaking out its so-called revolutionary Dynaflex vinyl record formulation. Most LP collectors know that this was a bunch of humbug even back in the day when it was released, so the vast majority of original pressings of Harry's catalog are on these thin, noisy, often warped platters. On the hit albums like Nilsson Schmillsson -- arguably his finest hour, home to the smash hit "Without You" -- the sound is thin and (oddly enough) MP3-like even played off my fairly pristine orange label copy (mine has the original poster that came with early pressings).
Again, oddly enough, the CD bears a warmth that the LP doesn't quite have in the mid ranges. While on a track like "Jump Into the FIre," Harry's rocking vocals take on some digital edge, its not all that different from what we hear on the LP. On a track like "Without You," its is really nice to hear the song without the slight warble from the somewhat off center pressing -- a personal nit of mine, often very evident on albums featuring solo piano and strings and this song opens with both. So in this instance, listening to the song on a medium with zero noise floor is highly desirable. When the bass and acoustic guitars kick in, the sound is just lovely. Of course this all whets the appetite for a pristine, 200-gram LP remaster or an uncompressed version on Blu-ray audio. RCA DID release a Quadrophonic mix of this album so a nice 5.1 surround remix might be feasible if the powers that be could find the tapes (Steven Wilson, are you listening?).
Cherry picking my way around the box (and this is really hard to say but) even my fairly pristine original pressings of early Nilsson recordings like Pandemonium Shadow Show are sounding weak compared to these quite fine CDs! My mono pressing LP sounds pretty great mostly, but there is distortion in the tracks closest to the center of the disc. The corresponding CD puts both mono AND stereo mixes on the same disc. While there is some added warmth on the LP, the reality is that these early recordings have a bit of a boxy sound and are never going to be audiophile fodder -- its just about the music here and on this CD the music sounds just fine. I'm going to have a hard time justifying keeping both mono and stereo LPs at this stage now that I have this nice CD.
Switching to the post-Lost Weekend release Duit On Mon Dei, its even harder to justify keeping the LP. I have two copies on vinyl, one on an original orange and another on later tan colored RCA labels; curiously, the CD reproduces the tan label which was probably more prevalent during the period. Nilsson's voice on this and later albums is bit more ragged and the music a bit less focused. The calypso flavored "Down By The Sea" and "Turn Out the Light" sound perfectly acceptable on the CD vs. the LP. Sure, the LP sounds warmer and Nilsson's voice takes on a bit of a harder edge on the CD, but the reality is that slight bit more grain is more than made up for by an greater sense of clarity not the recording, not found on the somewhat murky Dynaflex pressed LP.
Do I really need Nilsson's Sandman on LP? It was a mid-70s RCA Dynaflex pressing so its a bit on the noisy side and my LP is a bit warped and off center to begin with. Also, this one is a bit of a throw away album (it seems) so the notion of even needing audiophile-worthy pressing of songs like "How To Write A Song" and "Jesus Christ You're Tall" is questionable. The CD is just fine to satisfy my completist needs and is arguably cleaner sounding than the LP. The only nit is that the CD package doesn't reproduce the quite telling woodcut insert drawing of what looks like the sinking of an old ship (with faces of various artists performing on the album substituted on the patrons bodies). But... y'know what? At this point in my life I think I can live without this bit of memorabilia. Tracks like "Will She Miss Me?" sound really sweet on the CD with shimmery violins and lush piano (possibly played by Van Dyke Parks).
Relatively rare albums like the 1971 Aerial Pandemonium Ballet remix collection sound great, crisp and clean as compared to the noisy original Dynaflex pressing even if you could find an original copy that was in decent shape. Plus you get a slew of bonus tracks on the disc including Live BBC performances and Italian language versions.
Harder for me to justify losing is my pristine orange label pressing of Harry's collaboration with John Lennon entitled Pussy Cats. The product of their long lost weekend period of drinking and drugging, the album has a very expansive sound that plays -- frankly -- more like a Lennon record than a Harry album. Many malign this album but tracks like their cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross" and Doc Pomus' "Save The Last Dance For Me" play like flip-sides to Lennon's primal scream tracks like "Mother"(on the first Plastic Ono Band album in 1970). That said, the CD sounds remarkably good and it has many bonus tracks from the sessions. This album is essential for the Nilsson original "Don't Forget Me" which is as good as anything on Nilsson Schmilsson.
I will be getting rid of my copy of A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night because the old pressing is a bit noisy and, frankly, Gordon Jenkin's lush string arrangements sound pretty fabulous on the CD remaster; I generally prefer digital playback formats for orchestral albums because of noise floor issues and the impact even a slightly off-center vinyl pressing can have on the music. Curiously, I'll be holding onto my copy of That's The Way It Is and Knnillsson, the 1976 and 1977 releases (respectively) that have some quite lovely production touches; both sound quite a bit warmer on LP than the CD (especially the vocals) and the vinyl seems to be post-Dynaflex so its fairly quiet all things considered. These albums that have some interesting material on them, such as a magnificent take on George Harrison's "That Is All" which makes me wonder if, perhaps, Harry's voice was not as blown out as he felt it was.
Oh yeah, I have to tell you that this set has SO many bonus tracks on each disc and on THREE dedicated disc included in the set. You even get a demo of the theme from The Courtship of Eddie's Father!
You see, I could go on for hours discussing this set, way beyond the scope of this post. I think you get the idea that you need to own this if you are a Harry Nilsson fan. Go grab a copy today at Amazon especially since its available for less than $100 (which, for 17 CDs is VERY fair!)
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.