Recording of November 1989: Live at the Bottom Line

LAURA NYRO: Live at the Bottom Line
Cypress YL6430 (2 LPs), YD6430 (CD). Mark Linett, eng.; Laura Nyro, prod. AAA/AAD. TT: 62:00

Back in the early 1970s, every one of my female friends (though none of the men) owned at least two well-worn Laura Nyro albums—Eli and the 13th Confession and New York Tendaberry. Nyro proved, to an entire generation of coeds who were just a little scared of Janis Joplin, that a white girl could have soul (even if a sense of humor sorta went missing). The ultimate New York singer/songwriter, Nyro took Brill Building pop and soul, mixed in some Phil Spector and Motown girl groups, and raised it all to the level of histrionic spiritual apotheosis. Laura Nyro concerts of the late '60s were seances, this intensely shy, brilliant teenager lost in her own long, black hair, pounding the piano, her big, womanly voice rising and falling in cries of orgasmic joy and anguish so close you couldn't tell 'em apart. You loved her or you hated her.

1189rotm.jpgThough I'm no '60s chauvinist—well, maybe just a little—sometimes it's hard to remember just how good and exciting her—everyone's—music was back then. This new Laura Nyro album sounded great to me until I dug out my 20-year-old copy of Eli and picked myself up off the floor 46 minutes later. Now Live at the Bottom Line sounds no more than pretty good. But maybe record reviewers should declare a moratorium on comparing the current work of surviving '60s pop musicians with what they achieved back then. After all, this is the best Laura Nyro album since 1971, and that is 18 years.

Bottom Line is Nyro's third comeback album. The first, 1976's Smile, ended the five-year silence that followed It's Gonna Take a Miracle, her last record as a pop star. Smile was comfortable, but comfort was not what anyone listened to Laura Nyro for; you could fall asleep to it, and many did. The unmemorable, soft-centered Season of Lights (her other live album) and Nested followed in quick succession, as CBS took a bath on the five-album, million-bucks-apiece deal they'd signed with Nyro right after 1970's Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Another six years of silence, then 1984's much better (though no match for any of her '60s records) Mother's Spiritual, which CBS released unpromoted, then let die a quick death. (None of the last four albums are now in print.) Five more years passed, labelless, and Nyro finally left her house to tour the country last year to great notices, the result Live at the Bottom Line.

Considering the times, it's a very good album. If Nyro no longer has her head in '60s apocalyptic clouds, she has managed to pull it out of '70s softrock sand. She offers new tunes, talks seductively to the audience ("you're my prisoners," she breathes huskily), and recreates some of her old songs. "And When I Die" is no longer the halleluja hit single BS&T took to MOR fame, but a dark, slow, minor-tinged meditation by a woman more than 20 years older. "Wedding Bell Blues" is here too, as are "The Confession," "Stoned Soul Picnic," and "Emmie." The new songs can't match them, though they have their moments: "Roll of the Ocean" starts out rapwise, then rolls out into the classic Nyro piano groove that has never really left her, even in her worst work, and that has always made it a pleasure for me to listen to three or four of her albums right in a row. "The Japanese Restaurant Song" starts out telling of Nyro's dining out with her own unruly children, but quickly lifts into her fantasy of becoming a geisha with "a radical feminist bent" (applause from the delirious audience). The poetry is as succulent as ever, though her tendency toward opaquely personal pastel metaphors has always bordered on the cloying.

No, there's nothing here as good as any song on her first three records, but that was the timeless American pop of the gods; Laura Nyro got to write more of those songs than almost anyone except the Beatles, and most of them before she was 20. But she's fronting the best band she's ever had, built around a pair of the New York Italian rock musicians in the Rascals mold she's always cultivated (Felix Cavaliere produced Christmas, Charlie Calello—where are you now?—produced Eli). The arrangements are uncluttered, the playing clean, always interesting, and Nyro gives her band room to stretch their axehands a bit. And Cypress's analog sound, in the tradition of their Jennifer Warnes release Famous Blue Raincoat, is warm, full, rich, and sounds very live. The CD is a bit glarey on vocals, the LP a bit deeper in soundstage.

This is the real Laura Nyro comeback album. If you haven't heard any of her records since 1971, and if you loved her then, this might be the one. If you hated her, it might be time for second thoughts.—Richard Lehnert