December 2012

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I’m starting to see end of the year “best of lists.” I’m not generally inclined towards that sorts of thing since I don’t listen to much music at the time it comes out. For me listening to an album two or three years after its release counts as an unusually active interest. But I do think it’s worthwhile to recognize the pleasure of new music and the surprise of something unexpected. In that vein I can recommend a re-release of a somewhat-obscure 1971 album which I happened to get last week, Gonna Take a Miracle.

I’d had some sense of Laura Nyro as a songwriter who was both playful and intense — she’s probably best known for writing “Eli’s Coming” but my favorite, of the songs I’ve heard is “Sweet Blindness.” Gonna Take a Miracle is an albums of covers recorded with Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash) and is definitely a surprise. It’s playful, certainly, but it dives into a variety of pop standards with urgency and intensity. Some of the characteristics of the album can be explained by how it was recorded:

The studio was booked for a week, yet by the sixth day nothing had been recorded because everyone was having too good a time vibing. The schedule grew so tight that Patti [LaBelle] actually bet Huff a sizable chunk of cash that the songs could be knocked out in a few hours. According to Vicki, Gonna Take A Miracle is first takes, partially because everyone knew the songs by heart, but mainly because there was simply no time.

Listen to one of my favorite tracks, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The original is a legitimate Motown classic and there cover is, to my tastes better. Nervy yet friendly, sexy without being a come-on, and bringing real emotional bite to its sense of infatuation without being breathless. When they sing, “I don’t want to kiss you, but I need to.” it’s makes immediately clear what the song is about.

Consider what it means to call a recording, “intimate.” The word suggests privacy, some shared confidence between musician and listener. This music is intimate in that nothing is hidden but it is profoundly social music — both in the making of it, and the way in which Laura Nyro and Patti Labelle must have pushed each other, and in the implied connection to the audience, well described by Amy Linden in her liner notes:

Nyro’s fifth album, it pays homage to Motown, doo-wop, and the power of the girl-group. It was city music, street corner music. It was “black” music but like hip-hop, accessible to anyone with passion. Alternately gritty and giddy, it was the sound that hung in the New York City air like humidity on an August afternoon.

The message of the recording isn’t “let me tell you something that I know and you don’t.” It is, “let me remind you how rich and vibrant our collective culture is, that these songs, which we’ve all heard on the radio, are full of pleasure and emotion.” It is a bit of a miracle that the record exists as it is, rich, but immediate and unburdened by grand ambitions, it captures what must have been a very fun day in the studio.

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