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Tell Laura We Love Her

Laura Nyro
Soul Picnic: Laura Nyro rarely settled for 'moon/June' clichés.

Photo by Nancy LeVine

A tribute album honors the memory of Laura Nyro

By Nicky Baxter

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE, but there was a time when mainstream pop had room for just one woman who wrote and sang her own songs. For a good while, Carole King was that woman. Nevertheless, Laura Nyro, whose pedigree was similar to that of her more illustrious competitor, was King's equal--and in some ways, her superior. Profoundly influenced by both soul music and a sense of craftsmanship, Nyro's music was miles away from the earnest blandness of folkies such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez.

Like King, Nyro, who recently succumbed to cancer, first came to prominence by scripting hits for others. Her keenly developed sensibilities rarely allowed her to settle for the "moon/June" clichés, and while her music conformed to pop radio's limited format, Nyro managed somehow to transcend it. The singer/songwriter is now garnering the recognition she so richly deserves.

What began last year as a living tribute to one of pop's most gifted artists is now, tragically, a farewell. Still, Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro (Astor Place) simmers with understated passion. The album features 14 tracks performed by 14 female acts, including the Roches ("Wedding Bell Blues"), Suzanne Vega ("Buy and Sell") and Rosanne Cash ("Save the Country") and some lesser-known musicians.

Phoebe Snow's cover of the title track is almost curiously mournful; the music mopes along like a discarded lover. Snow, meanwhile, is in fine form. Her idiosyncratic warble oozes warmly, wrapping itself around the tune's wounded beauty. The line "So Jesus was an angel / And mankind broke his wing / But Jesus gave his lifeline / So sacred bells can sing" is as close to poetry as pop comes.

Jill Sobule's take on "Stoned Soul Picnic" is a whispered invitation to get back to the land, if only for an afternoon's delight. Overdubbed "come ons" delicately nibble at your ears. This is definitely not the Fifth Dimension, for whom the song was initially written, but it's entrancing nonetheless.

As rendered by folk artiste Vega, "Buy and Sell" is a wintry thing, as stark and hushed as a December morning after an evening's snowfall. The ubiquitous Mitchell Froom's musical accompaniment is sensitive and understated; piano, vibes and synthesizers complement perfectly Vega's wispy, unadorned vocals.

All the artists put their own stamp on Nyro's tunes, but Lisa Germano's take on "Eli's Comin' " is the most oddball. Outfitted in Gary Newman's synthesized droning sonic garb, the song's original ecstatic splendor is replaced with a disquieting sense of foreboding. Creaking doors, throttled violins and haunted guitars surface at various junctures to underscore Germano's monochromatic delivery. Creepy? Yes, but riveting.

Laura Nyro wasn't around to hear the end result of this project, but you get the feeling she'd approve. After all, she, too, was a firm believer in taking chances, stretching the limitations of her chosen occupation. If nothing else, Time and Love is living proof of the timelessness of great songwriting.

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro.

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