Album of the Week: Laura Nyro’s The First Songs (1973)

Laura Nyro is one of my favorite artists ever, and one of the more underrated singer-songwriters of the fruitful 60s and 70s period when such musicians were found in abundance. More deeply rooted in R&B than the Laurel Canyon artists like Joni Mitchell, yet jazzier and more expansive than the great Carole King, New York’s Nyro imbued pure emotion into her music from a young age.

As a teen, she enjoyed tripping on cough syrup and listening to John Coltrane records – and if you don’t believe me, consult Michele Kort’s biography Soul Picnic. I would venture to assume that some of this mind-altered consumption to jazz influenced her masterpiece New York Tendaberry (1969). But that would come later.

The First Songs, however, are exactly that. A reissue of Nyro’s debut More Than a New Discovery (1967), all 12 of these songs were recorded in 1966 (by an 18/19 year old Nyro!). I highlight this reissue for several reasons: it’s more ubiquitous (it’s the version you’ll find on streaming services), it’s the one I own on LP, and it has a better tracklist.

The songs themselves are fairly straightforward: breezy, classic piano pop and R&B, all penned by the brilliant young Nyro. My favorites are the ballad “He’s a Runner,” with its catchy chorus and Stevie-esque harmonica accompaniment, and the sublime “Buy and Sell”. “Lazy Susan” is perhaps the best indicator of what was to become Nyro’s signature style: a lush song with several unexpected changes in rhythm and structure, as well as an emotive vocal performance (hear her almost gutturally bellow “black-eyed Sue” in the middle of the track).

Not unlike Carole King, Nyro initially made it in the industry via the success of her songs being performed by other artists. The 5th Dimension went number 1 with “Wedding Bell Blues” in 1968, and Blood, Sweat & Tears made it to number 2 on the charts a year later with their cover of “And When I Die”. Here you’ll find the original compositions in all their tender glory. As I mentioned above, Nyro would go on to make even greater music, but The First Songs holds a special place in my collection and my heart.

Listen to The First Songs on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses (1972)

Joel Bernstein photo, used for the album cover.

The great Joni Mitchell has a number of classic albums under her belt, and is perhaps best known for her melancholy masterpiece Blue (1971), surely one of the best singer-songwriter albums in an era chock full of them. But a year later, she wrote and recorded the underrated For the Roses, an intimate and poetic look into the demise of a celebrity couple, decades before the internet made the ups and downs of such relationships so transparent.

Nearly every song on For the Roses concerns the fallout of her romance with James Taylor. As Laurel Canyon mainstays, the fact of Mitchell and Taylor’s relationship in the early 70s is unsurprising. They sang, recorded and loved together, and Mitchell even accompanied Taylor for some of the filming of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the seminal road movie in which he starred. But it was not to last. As Taylor’s stardom increased, so did his roving eye, and his infidelities eventually brought an end to their affair. Fed-up and heartsick, Mitchell abandoned LA for a cabin in the wilds of northern British Columbia:

At a certain point, I actually tried to move back to Canada, into the bush. My idea was to follow my advice and get back to nature. I built a house that I thought would function with or without electricity. I was going to grow gardens and everything. Most of For the Roses was written there.

-Mitchell, 1989 interview with Rolling Stone

Living in solitude and wrapped up in books on philosophy and the nature of human existence (Thus Spoke Zarathustra was never far from reach), it makes sense that “Banquet”, the first track on For the Roses, addresses inequality and the search for meaning among people. Using a banquet as a metaphor for what is divvied up among the social classes, she sings “Some get the gravy / Some get the gristle / Some get nothing / Though there’s plenty to spare”. “Some turn to Jesus / And some turn to heroin,” she adds. This is her first dig at Taylor, who picked up the habit early on in their relationship.

“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” continues this theme, telling an ominous tale of James trying to score smack. “Let the Wind Carry Me”, on the other hand, sounds like freedom. One can sense the openness Joni explored in the wilds of Canada in the song’s jazzy strides into the sublime. It’s similar to what Laura Nyro had accomplished a couple years earlier on tracks like “Upstairs By a Chinese Lamp”. Lyrically, Mitchell analyzes both her mother’s disapproval of her youthful ways, and her own internal desire to raise a child. But this feeling “passes like December / I’m a wild seed again / Let the wind carry me”. Despite internal and external constraints, her own freedom is paramount.

I can’t quote every line that touches upon her relationship with Taylor, but it is remarkable to hear how stark she is about it. “See You Sometime” is heartbreaking: “Why do you have to be so jive? / OK, hang up the phone / It hurts / But something survives / Though it’s undermined / I’d still like to see you sometime.” The pain of a broken love is sustained in the sound. “Blonde in the Bleachers” examines Taylor’s inability to stay monogamous from his perspective, while “Woman of Heart and Mind” is biting:

You come to me like a little boy
And I give you my scorn and my praise
You think I’m like your mother
Or another lover or your sister
Or the queen of your dreams
Or just another silly girl
When love makes a fool of me
After the rush when you come back down
You’re always disappointed
Nothing seems to keep you high
Drive your bargains
Push your papers
Win your medals
Fuck your strangers
Don’t it leave you on the empty side
?

According to Mark Bego’s biography Joni Mitchell, Rolling Stone took a deep dig at her in their year-end 1972 issue, bestowing her the “Old Lady of the Year Award”. Bego writes, “It included a chart intimating that she had slept with half of the music business. Mitchell was represented as a pair of lips pursed in a kiss. Lines were drawn to the names of Graham Nash (identified as a broken heart), David Crosby (broken heart), and gay David Geffen (erroneously identified with kisses). Also on the list were supposed lovers like her band member Russ Kunkel and her buddy Stephen Stills.”

The double-standard in rock, where men became legendary for their exploits with groupies, and women were chastised for sleeping with multiple people, was extremely apparent. The sexist distinction hurt Mitchell and severed her ties to Rolling Stone for many years. To me, it also shows how strong she was in making an album about her side of the story in a time where this was the press’s response. Almost 40 years later, I can only thank her for doing so. Transmuting all of her pain and heartbreak into a cathartic and profound collection of songs, Mitchell gave us an all-timer in For the Roses.

In a 1987 interview for Musician, speaking on her retreat from fame, the interviewer asks, “Could you find a place in yourself where you could sort things out?” Joni replies:

One day about a year after I started my retreat in Canada I went out swimming. I jumped off a rock and into this dark emerald green water with yellow kelp in it and purple starfish at the bottom. It was very beautiful, and as I broke up to the surface of the water, which was black and reflective, I started laughing. Joy had suddenly come over me, you know? And I remember that as a turning point. First feeling like a loony because I was out there laughing all by myself in this beautiful environment. And then, right on top of that was the realization that whatever my social burdens were, my inner happiness was still intact.

Listen to For the Roses on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Johnnie Frierson’s Have You Been Good to Yourself (2016)

from Light in the Attic

When quarantine began in March, I experienced feelings of despair. With life turned on its head, I looked for something in music to help lift me up. And what I turned to time and time again was this, Johnnie Frierson’s lost classic Have You Been Good to Yourself.

Recorded in the 90s* and released on cassette tape, Frierson’s songs are simple. The only sounds you hear are guitar, voice and occasionally the beat of a stomping foot.

What hooked me on this release is the song “Miracles”. Hypnotic and slightly bizarre, the chugging “Miracles” tells the tale of a Memphis car-customizer known as “Spaceman”. According to a 2017 article from WMC Action News 5 of Memphis, “Spaceman was a Memphian who was ahead of his time. He’d created a self-driving, voice-activated car. This was 1988 in Memphis; not 2020 in Silicon Valley.” See a surreal news clip of the report below:

“We all airplanes in this big airport called the world. We all are capable of flying,” Spaceman says. According to the reporter, “Everything [Spaceman] does is a testament to God”. Not surprsing, then, that he and Frierson would be friends.

One needn’t be a christian to feel something from Frierson’s overtly religious songs. His piety is so touching because it translates to pure passion in his music, and this passion reverberates throughout these recordings, especially in Frierson’s voice. Occasionally he releases a chilling wail, as in “Woke Up This Morning” when he cries, “I could’ve been deaaaaad! In my graaaave! But the lord has blessed me!” The straightforward lyrics, clearly delivered from the heart as the entire recordings are without any studio embellishment, are pure and uplifting. On “You Were Sent to this World”, Frierson tells the listener that they were brought to this Earth for a purpose, and that their life has meaning. Even from a disembodied voice of the past, it’s nice to hear in these difficult times.

To my ears, the best song on Have You Been Good to Yourself is the final track “Trust in the Lord”, which combines everything that makes this album so great: Frierson’s passionate singing, homey guitar playing, and simple and sincere lyrics, as well as a beautiful interpretation of “Amazing Grace”.

Have You Been Good to Yourself was re-released in 2016 by the great folks at Light in the Attic Records. According to the Memphis Flyer, label founder Matt Sullivan heard the tape from a friend and record dealer who had randomly found the cassette in a Memphis thrift store, and he was blown away. From the Flyer: “No doubt this is one of my favorite things in our catalog,” Sullivan says. “It’s one of those special albums where you feel like you’re in the room with the man, almost eavesdropping on an incredibly personal moment. He’s singing from the bottom of his heart and soul. Personally, it doesn’t get better than this.”

Check out Have You Been Good to Yourself on Spotify.

*Most sources indicate that this music was recorded and released by Frierson in the 90s, however I’ve also read that he recorded these songs in the 70s after returning from Vietnam. The references to Memphis’ Spaceman lead me to believe that these songs were most likely recorded in the late 80s or early 90s. The true nature of the recording dates seems unknown, but I also have not read the liner notes of the release.