Counter Action: Edition 5
Each week our resident ‘man of mystery’ (alright he works in a record shop) chooses to shine his vinyl shaped spotlight on a dimly lit corner of that wonderful world of ‘7”s, 12”s, LPs etc. that we call, err, records. The records chosen needn’t cost an arm and a leg, be especially rare, or even be so obscure that you out there in ‘normal land’ are like never-ever-ever going to find one – in fact, they don’t have to be good at all (although that does help). No, our record shop employee has a far more noble aim – namely to celebrate the seldom-celebrated, to tell the story of a record with a story to tell – no genre shall go unturned, after all, a tune, is a tune, is a tune…..
This week with a festive glint in his eye and he’s chosen this much under rated album by US singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, 'Christmas & The Beads Of Sweat'…..
For the uninitiated Nyro (pronounced Near-Oh) is quite simply a musicians musician, a New York born native whose music encompassed jazz, singer songwriter material, Brill building pop, rhythm & blues and beyond, all topped off with a healthy dose of musical theatrics. Although she didn't achieve a pop hit herself, her songs were covered by Fifth Dimension (Stoned Soul Picnic, Wedding Bell Blues), Barbara Streisand, Three Dog Night, Peter Paul & Mary and Blood Sweat & Tears and more. In short, you probably know her music without realising it. Hang on, somehow I forgot to mention her incredible octave defying voice; sorry.
Christmas & The Beads Of Sweat LP
Released in 1970, this was her fourth LP, and the follow up to the critically acclaimed 'New York Tendaberry'. Jazz, folk and R&B are the musical touchstones spread out over two themed sides of the album. Side one features a crack team of Muscle Shoals players (The Swampers) with Atlantic Records main-man Arif Mardin on production duties, what at first may seem an odd choice reveals itself to be a canny bit of planning on Nyro’s part, this super-tight musical unit were fresh from recording Dusty Springfield’s ‘Dusty In Memphis’ LP and bring all their considerable musical chops to this side of the record, check the soul groove of Blackpatch which features a tasty little horn section too if you don't believe me….
What’s that old football cliché about a game of two halves? Well it’s certainly true here, with side two offering a far more downbeat selection of material. Although featuring a second set of top notch session players (including Dino Danelli from the Rascals and noted jazz session man Ralph McDonald) their contributions are paired back letting Nyro’s gently free-form piano playing and vocal theatrics take centre stage, the eight minute plus ‘Map To The Treasure’ is a gem featuring a good two minutes of ambient-esqe piano work with just Nyro’s voice for company before the 'song' emerges…
It's called 'Christmas & The Beads Of Sweat', does it actually have anything to do with Christmas?
Oh ye of little faith, yes it does. The final song on the album, 'Christmas In My Soul', clocks in at a little over seven minutes, this haunting, largely piano based piece, instructs the 'children' in the first verse to 'respect your brothers and sisters'. Here, Nyro is calling upon, not just fellow counter-cultural like-minded souls, but also those on the margins that may have missed all the grooviness up for grabs in the big cities at the time – The message? We've all got to pull together, not just the groovy kids.
It’s been suggested that this track (in fact most of the LP) is a reaction to the political/social turmoil the US was going through at this time; think Vietnam, the students killed by the Man at Kent State University alongside the simmering racial tensions exasperated by the deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In fact Nyro's politics are pleasingly progressive as she not only gives a good 'ol diss to politicians in the the third verse, 'the sins of politics, the politics of sin' but she also doffs her metaphorical cap to the Chicago Seven, a group of politically active hippies (Yippies) that were on trial on conspiracy charges, throw in support for the Black Panthers; a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organisation that was active in the US between 1966 and 1982 – and pheewee, you've got a Christmas song like no other….
Look out next week for Wham's 'Last Christmas – gender politics and the hidden narrative'***