Laura Nyro
The First Songs
(Audio Fidelity)

I know it's not a fun thing to admit, but I have to confess that by now I've silently come to accept the fact that it's entirely possible that Laura Nyro will forever be appreciated only by the happy few, the perfect specimen of the "cult artist" category whose greatness will never be perceived by the majority (the obvious exception here being those musicians who have openly acknowledged the greatness of her compositions and interpretations).

And when things are not so ebullient on the side of the demand, it's quite unlikely there will be any supply to speak of. At the start of the previous decade there had been a few signs of activity, those re-releases on Sony looking almost like a new beginning. But what CDs followed appeared along the lines of a "case by case" basis, with no ambition of ever offering a complete picture whatsoever. Sure, one could see the glass as being half full, and it would be stupid to downplay the re-release of More Than A New Discovery - Nyro's first album - on CD, or the re-release of a fine best-of, Time And Love - The Essential Masters, in a new, excellent audiophile edition (interested readers will be glad to know that both albums were extensively reviewed here).

Last year I was told of a new, cheap mini-box featuring the already familiar digital remasters. But I also got news about a new, audiophile vinyl edition on Audio Fidelity. And here it is.

Here we'll have to go back in time. Originally released in both stereo and mono in 1967 on Verve with the title More Than A New Discovery, Laura Nyro's first album - only nineteen at the time, she was already a mature artist - was later re-released by Columbia, the label that had signed the singer-songwriter immediately after her first release. Now (quite logically) titled The First Songs, this Columbia re-release appeared in 1973, sporting a new cover - a floral print instead of Nyro's close-up on a black background - and a new remix. As far as I know, this remix is the only mix that's left, and the only one that has appeared on every subsequent re-release, regardless of its cover.

This is obviously also true of the CD re-release on REV-OLA which appeared three years ago, its original cover and original running order notwithstanding - like the original version of the album, the CD's opening track is Goodbye Joe, the closing track California Shoeshine Boys; in the 1973 version on Columbia - which features a totally different running order - the aforementioned tracks were replaced by, respectively, Wedding Bell Blues and And When I Die, which at the time of the re-release were maybe the most famous of Nyro's songs.

More Than A New Discovery/The First Songs is an album that nowadays can be said to be in many ways Laura Nyro's most "old-fashioned" one, a "period piece" where - for the first, and last, time in her career - Nyro's performance can at times be defined as "conventional". The main culprit here being the fact that the arrangements - good, but not great - force Nyro to choose a vocal approach that produces some performances that are somewhat "stylized", and especially so when compared to those she'll adopt starting with her second album, with her personal use of "rubato", in both piano and vocal depts.

But the album is very good, with its clear writing which will work as a prototype for all "female literature" that in just a few years will conquer the charts. Here, in order to be captured, one has only to listen to the exuberant California Shoeshine Boys, the optimistic And When I Die, the vignettes Wedding Bell Blues, Flim Flam Man, and Stoney End, the "hushed" Billy's Blues and He's A Runner, the joyous Blowing Away, the "mood piece" titled Buy And Sell.

This new vinyl release of The First Songs immediately appears as a solid, elegant proposition. A thick, high-quality cardboard cover featuring the floral motif from 1973, and - surprise! - a gatefold cover which has the original Nyro portrait from '73 on the left, the lyrics on the right. Vinyl looks fantastic: thick, clean, flat, the central hole where it should be; also incredibly silent, just like a... CD, the only exception being four light "pops" on Billy's Blues, right-channel only.

What about the music? Well, there was something strange at work here, the final result being good but definitely lacking when it comes to "emotional factor". Which I found to be strange, given the fact that the album was mastered by Kevin Gray, an engineer who's held in high esteem when it comes to mastering.

As an aside, I'll have to openly admit that I've always been quite skeptical about the (so-called) "vinyl renaissance", especially when it comes to what for most people is a form of "ostentatious consumption" intended to give "extra status" in one's "peer group", just like any other commodity. Limited as it is, my experience when it comes to vinyl re-releases tells me that, though excellence is possible, most of the times the outcome is pretty poor, due to indifference for the actual product, or for matters pertaining costs, the first casualty being the re-releases resembling the originals. So it goes without saying that I'm quite aware of the fact that it's highly unlikely that the problems I'm gonna talk about in a minute would be perceived by an average consumer. While when it comes to "objective traits" - such as "quality of vinyl" - this album by Audio Fidelity is an excellent item.

I've never listened to the album's original mix on Verve from 1967, be it stereo, or mono. But I'm quite familiar with the edition on Columbia from 1973, which is basically reproduced on the Columbia CD from the 80s. So, on first listen, I attributed what I perceived as being a strange sound to my lack of confidence with this new edition, given the fact that I've listened to the Columbia remix quite a few times in the course of the last thirty years. To put it in a nutshell, the Columbia remix sports a "hard panning" - as it's quite common with not a few albums from the 60s - with a drastic separation between the "left" and "right" channels. On the Columbia mix, solo voice is mostly on the right, with the rhythm section - electric bass, double bass, drums, percussion, piano - hard-panned on the right; while the solo winds, such as harmonica and trumpet, and the wind section, are hard-panned on the left. This is not something that's cast in stone - for instance, Buy And Sell features a muted trumpet in the right channel - but as a general description will do. This new vinyl edition sounds like the left channel has been somewhat muted, while the group and vocal in the right channel extend towards the center. The effect is maybe more "harmonious", but it often lacks that "counterpoint" which has a precise musical meaning.

It has to be said that this new Kevin Gray master lacks the shrill peaks that were oh so present on the Columbia master as it had appeared on LP and CD, and that those saturated peaks that came with high notes in the vocals and certain "tutti" from the winds, especially when it comes to the trumpets, are for the most part absent. But at what cost? Let's check that famous song, And When I Die, where those winds on the left channel are quite lower in level, so one is bound to miss that "fanfare" effect, and the counterpoint from the baritone sax. Of course, it's entirely possible that - in this particular case - this was done in order to avoid that dreaded inner groove distortion which is part and parcel of the original Columbia album I love so much!

I can only speculate. I compared two vinyl editions, and it's entirely possible that in the forty years since that remix the original master tape has deteriorated badly. But the Best-Of released last year by Audio Fidelity featured a few tracks off the first album, and to me those tracks - which were mastered by Steve Hoffman from the original master tapes - sounded quite similar to my old Columbia LP, only ten times better! So?

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011 | Apr. 19, 2011