Laura Nyro
Eli And The Thirteenth Confession

(Audio Fidelity)

I have to confess that every time I happen to read a sentence such as "It's like having the artist singing right there in front of you, instead of listening to a recording" I raise my eyebrows. Not because I'm not aware of the potential differences when it comes to different pressings, from different countries, of the same album (and how could it be possible, for someone who was raised in the glorious age of vinyl?). It's that - I'll be blunt about it - most "Hi-Fi buffs" I've met, while obviously "in the know" when it came to expensive cables, did not appear to have a very competent appreciation of the music they listened to. There, I said it.

Readers can imagine my surprise when, a few tracks into this new edition of Laura Nyro's second album - her first on Columbia, also the first on which she had complete control, after the rough going she experienced when recording her debut album on Verve - I uttered these words: "It's just like having Laura Nyro singing in front of me, it doesn't sound like I'm listening to a recording!".

Hence, this question: Does it matter?

Well, by now it appears that when it comes to music the great majority of people have clearly shown they really care about such things as portability, ease of use, also - I'll be candid about it - "cheapness" (in various ways, from yesterday's illegal downloading to nowadays streaming), not so much about sound quality. Why this is true when it comes to hearing, and not so when it comes to sight - anybody appears to be able to "get" hi-def when it comes to video - is still a source of heated discussions.

There's the tiny battalion of those "lovers of vinyl" who profess their faith in the technical means of reproduction, a position that curiously mirrors the attitude held by many back in the day when CDs first appeared.

There's also the "third sector": those who have found a new way to "listen to the same old music for the first time again" - because, in a way, the music is now "new" - in the current practice of re-mixing those historical albums we've listened to for decades.

Recorded at a time when Laura Nyro still had to turn twenty-one, Eli And The Thirteenth Confession appeared in 1968. I bought a U.S. pressing - a "red Columbia" vinyl album - about ten years later. In the late 80s, I bought what I believe to be the first CD version, then a CD re-release in 2002. While the latter sounded quite harsh and loud (but those demos included as bonus tracks made it possible for one to listen to her "rubato" on piano in the solitude of the recording studio), those items on Columbia shared the same sound: shrill highs, bass-shy.

Which brings me to those who regard Laura Nyro's vocals as "strident" and "shrill". This new edition of Eli And The Thirteenth Confession presents her voice as possessing a "softness", a "rotundity", which I regard as being more similar to what one can hear on the live album Spread Your Wings And Fly: Live At The Fillmore East May 30, 1971 (an album which clearly shows the tight relationship between the artist and her audience: just listen to the way people react to such songs as Christmas In My Soul and Save The Country, both dealing with burning topics of the day) than to the album as presented on Columbia.

A criticism - having a "shrill"-sounding voice - that Laura Nyro shares with Joni Mitchell. Let's not forget that those early hits came only when different artists recorded "normalized" covers of their songs. And while Joni Mitchell later had great success, this did not happen to Laura Nyro, whose songs were hits only as covers.

It's funny to read in those old issues of Rolling Stone how dismissive, not to mention patronizing, the magazine's best reviewers - from Jon Landau to Alec Dubro, from Lenny Kaye to Dave Marsh - could be when reviewing Nyro's albums. It's also their tone one notices, like one thinks he's wasting time dealing with things that don't really deserve one's time and full attention.

Which sounds quite paradoxical, given the fact that Laura Nyro created a true original synthesis which itself became a blueprint, and that she pushed the boundaries of what can be said in the lyrics of one's songs.

Nyro's debut album, More Than A New Discovery (later re-released under the title The First Songs), features very fine songs, "dressed" in a way as to make the artist sound "more palatable". Eli And The Thirteenth Confession features the "piano and vocals" combination so integral to her art, the nucleus on which to build the orchestration. Here Charlie Calello is the co-producer and arranger, and he gives the most appropriate clothes to every song.

The version of Eli And The Thirteenth Confession I'm talking about is a "Hybrid Multichannel SACD" featuring the album in the original quadraphonic sound, and two stereo layers - the high-rez of the SACD format, and the usual CD resolution - which were remastered by Steve Hoffman and Stephen Marsh. Readers will maybe be surprised to learn that I only own a CD player, and that I bought this title regardless.

After saying that "it really sounds like Laura Nyro is singing in front of me", I'll say that it's the album as a whole that shines, from the snare in the snare drum, to the muted trumpets, to the appropriate "weight" in the sound of both the baritone sax and the electric bass. In so differently from those previous editions, I found that I could listen to this album at respectable volume levels. Those who are already familiar with Eli And The Thirteenth Confession don't need any more words from my part.

Things could be different when it comes to those who are not familiar with "this kind of music". The first aspect they could find some difficulty in dealing with is the great variety of styles and climates featured in this music, something that once upon a time was regarded as being a plus but which is nowadays a rarity. Also, the great "internal variety" of the songs, which also feature vocal dynamics that are simply inconceivable in this age of "flat lines".

There's also something I would never had thought about, had I not read a thread in a Forum on the Web about the orchestration as featured on Nick Drake's masterpiece Bryter Layter (also on its predecessor, Five Leaves Left), which was perceived as being "disruptive" and "extraneous" by listeners one guessed were quite young, who celebrated instead the "naked" dimension of Drake's Pink Moon, an aspect that at the time of the album's original release had been regarded as the album's weak point.

Eli And The Thirteenth Confession starts with three songs of beautiful and contagious exuberance, which in a way work as a kind of "bridge" from her debut album: Luckie, lively with rhythm, well orchestrated, with reeds; Lu, featuring reeds, a "jazz" guitar, and multiple vocals; and the quite famous - at the time - Sweet Blindness, featuring a fine Nyro performance on piano.

These are followed by two numbers which are less ornate, and which feature highly dramatic vocals: Poverty Train has a "Blues" sound, featuring acoustic guitar, vibes, flute, piano, and a fine close; while Lonely Women features a sax.

Closing Side One of the original album, Eli's Coming is pure Gospel, with overdubbed vocals in a spectacular "call and response"; elastic and propulsive piano and electric bass (no credits in the original album, these particular musicians are widely believed to be Paul Griffin and Chuck Rainey); a Hammond intro that one can only call fantastic (Griffin again); and a beautiful wind section.

Side Two is even more varied.

Timer sounds like a Broadway musical. It's multi-themed, well orchestrated, rich with different colours, featuring multiple vocals.

Stoned Soul Picnic is airy and light as per its title. A mid-tempo with R&B shadings, fine overdubbed vocals, cool strings, and an excellent electric bass.

Emmie inhabits a dreaming mood. It features vibes, guitar, snare drum, strings, piano, tympani, harp, but everything here is used sparingly and with taste.

Woman's Blues opens with vocals with a wind background (listen to the echo giving the proper effect to the word "broken"), later to explode in a tense upbeat featuring snare drum, reeds, and a fine "groove" from the electric bass.

Once It Was Alright Now (Farmer Joe) has great drive and vivacious reeds, then it stops, then it starts again, in double time (Paul Griffin again on piano, I think).

December's Boudoir is the track that most benefits from this new remastering. A miniature suite, featuring piano, harp, oboe, strings (a "shiver" that anticipates those subliminal orchestrations which will be the most distinctive trait of New York Tendaberry, the masterpiece album Nyro released the following year). There's a spectacular coda for orchestra, harp, and piano.

Last track, The Confession can be regarded as a summa of the whole album. Starting with an acoustic guitar playing arpeggio, a propulsive snare played brushes, it has a quite moving "B" section featuring strings, and a frantic double time - after the high shout "slave" - which brings the track to its majestic climax.

Eli And The Thirteenth Confession was never an "easy" album to listen to, the same being true today. I just hope that this sells at least enough to make it possible for Audio Fidelity to release a new version of New York Tendaberry that's as masterfully rendered as this.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2017 | Jan. 17, 2017