Various Artists: This is The Town: A Tribute to Nilsson (Vol. 1)
This isn’t the first multi-artist tribute to Harry Nilsson (1995’s For the Love of Harry:Everybody Sings Nilsson arrived first), and it won’t be the last (a Volume 2 is already in the works). But it’s a testament to Harry Nilsson’s talent that his music has inspired cult-like worship, largely from other musicians who appreciate his oblique song craft. The songwriter’s untimely death in 1995 wasn’t exactly surprising to those who followed his non-musical exploits but even though his later output paled compared to his earlier work, Nilsson’s legacy continues to live on. Recent interest in Nilsson’s work can be traced to 2010’s compelling documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, but it’s the music that continues to turn a new generation onto his unique gifts.
This 20 track set, produced by Kenny Siegal and recorded during 2013, features predominantly young and obscure artists taking a shot at interpreting Nilsson’s songs. As is typical of these projects, it’s a mixed bag. But when the biggest names on the lineup are Tracy Bonham, Marco Benevento, Willy Mason and Langhorne Slim, you can’t help but wonder if there is enough interest in the likes of the Mommyheads, Blueberry, Marnie Minch and others you probably haven’t heard of, to attract sufficient attention to this genuinely intriguing and occasionally innovative batch of re-worked Nilsson nuggets.
There aren’t many musical revelations although Church of Betty’s Indian raga-fied “Without You” (a hit for Nilsson but written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham) and Dawn Landes’ girlish take on the once angry “You’re Breaking My Heart” are unique and somewhat bizarre interpretations. Folkie Johanna Warren switches genders on a sublime “Without Her,” on a lovely version of that tune. The album fares best when it uncovers hidden Nilsson gems such as the wonderful “I Said Goodbye to Me” (done here as hushed, shimmering Donovan-like psychedelic pop by Josh Kaufman), and the Yellowbirds’ rocked up, overdubbed “Rainmaker,” just two 60’s tracks that feel fresh and current in these versions.
The sheer diversity of sounds that range from Low Cut Connie’s gruff guitar grinding “Jump Into the Fire” to Annie Nilsson’s (yep, Harry’s daughter who also provided the charming artwork) sweet, near note perfect American pop of “Gotta Get Up” and the barroom blues of Johnny Society’s “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song” is impressive.
It’s unlikely any of these well-intentioned covers will replace Nilsson’s originals. But if this disc, and its follow-up’s appearance, creates more interest in Nilsson’s catalog, famously endorsed by the Beatles, then it has done its job well.