There are some albums I truly cherish and, for one reason or another, leave my mind. I don’t think there is some significant meaning to that. I don’t love them any less. However, an album temporarily retreats into the recesses of your mind. Whatever purpose it had has been fulfilled until the day it is needed again. When that happens, it is a replenishing and joyous occasion.
Such an occasion happened on Tuesday. I was at the music school where I volunteer looking through their vast record collection to replace some recordings we featured the previous month. During this, I found Laura Nyro’s 1968 masterpiece Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. At that moment, everything came back to me instantly. Every horn, every chorus, and every crescendo by the incomparable Laura Nyro. The feeling that overcame me was spiritual in a way; a light had been seen.
I showed my volunteer partner the record and exclaimed its brilliance. My volunteer partner has been a skilled musician for years and is very knowledgeable about 1960s American music, but he had not heard of Nyro. I told him I wasn’t surprised. I think Nyro is criminally underrepresented in popular culture. Though, that was by design. Nyro came up in the same Greenwich Village folk scene as the likes of Bob Dylan, but shied away from the limelight. She gained a reputation for being not only an amazing songwriter, but a definitively unique and talented singer. Take those qualities Nyro had and add a tight soulful backing band, and you have one of the finest and most underrated records of the 20th century.
For me, Nyro is the most talented woman in rock/pop music history. She delivered on all fronts. While she was not really famous in terms of her own commercial impact, many of her songs became huge hits for other artists including the Fifth Dimension and Three Dog Night. Nyro’s talent as a songwriter was masterful and served as the foundation for her exceptional style as a musician. Her opulent vocal talents breathed life into her words in ways very few other artists have replicated. Her flexible vocal range allowed her to conquer jazz, folk, blues, pop, rock, and soul. She had it all covered and she did so effortlessly.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is a rare example where every song on the record is flawless. Sophisticated and textured both musically and lyrically, Nyro takes the listener on a trip into the loves, romances, and deaths within her psyche. The album changes gears frequently from song to song and, sometimes, even verse to verse with such a rich progression.
I was taken to a beautiful place on Tuesday when I revisited this record with my volunteer partner. I sat down, closed my eyes, and let the music take me away. Very few records make me as happy as that one does. People kept coming into the office to get supplies and materials, and they would stop and be filled with excitement that Laura Nyro was playing. One of the school’s teachers just let it all out and shared with us everything she knew about Nyro and that it was so amazing that young people were taking an interest because, the reality is, not many people know of Nyro. Nyro’s music has this amazing effect to put a smile on anyone’s face and embrace life with such passion.
Every song on the record is amazing, but I have a soft spot for “Stoned Soul Picnic.” An avant-garde jazz track, “Stoned Soul Picnic” is simple in its message; a picnic with wine and good friends. The track starts slow with a lite piano and unobtrusive guitar. When the backing vocals kick in, the progression changes. More instruments start joining and music swells. A positive energy is being built. Nyro’s vocals become increasingly dynamic as she increases her range in an operatic fashion. Musically complex, though it conveys pure and simple happiness. It is calming and exciting simultaneously.
I love it when I see people experience Nyro for the first time. My volunteer partner was skeptical, but he really enjoyed listening to her. I just wish more people did. She is well-respected in the music industry, but lacks significant commercial attention. It even took six nominations for her to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Someone so beautiful and talented deserves recognition. The next time you’re feeling a little blue, just go online and listen to a song or two. As soon as you do, you’ll want to surry down to a stoned soul picnic.