Wow! After several years of demo's and the occasional single, Harry Nilsson finally cut his first true album. And what a corker! It was and still is one of the most inovative discs of the period and was a fine showcase for his superb acrobatic vocal style, his song-writing and his ability to make a cover version his own.
Opening with some amusing dialogue with the announcer (Harry in very tongue in cheek Boxing Promoter voice) finding it impossible to pronounce the album title, we are led into "Ten Little Indians". Some heavy marching-band style drumming sets the back beat for a happy little tune, but the genius lies behind the meaning of the lyrics. It's basically the ten commandments set to music. And very cleverly disguised they are! But then again, that's something Harry had the knack for....
None of this hidden meaning lark is anywhere to be seen in "1941" - just an out and out autobiography of Mr. Nilsson's life so far. A great tune built around a tasty organ part, Harry chronicles key events in his own life and asks rheotorically what lies ahead. A true classic.
Hidden meanings were never so cryptic as in "Cuddly Toy" that follows. The tune had been aired by Davy Jones on the Monkees album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. earlier in the year, with its lilting tune and quirky lyrics sounding more innocent than a baby in a robbery trial. But alas, Harry had penned the ditty with another meaning entirely - the concept of a "gang-bang" with the "Cuddly Toy" in question being nothing less than a lady of horizontal-pleasure! The Monkees cut is excellent and catchy, and this version is very similar.
"She Sang Hymns Out of Tune" is a quaint offering. It features a barrel organ track and some deliberate vocal hesitance. All in all, a very pleasant song to listen to and indeed sing along with.
At the time, there was a trend for tribute songs. Usually these were about legends such as Buddy Holly who were sadly no longer with us. But when Harry paid a unique tribute to the Beatles with "You Can't Do That", they were still riding high in the charts. This was a first. It was not just a mere cover version. Hell no! Firstly, the arrangement and tempo had been altered totally - it was now much slower with a prominant bongo catch. But careful listening reveals that the backing vocals (all sung by a multi-layered Harry - as ever) mention many many different Beatles tracks, all woven together in seamless fashion and ending on the immortal line: "Strawberry Beatles Forever". A wonderous track.
The laid back jazz feel of "Sleep Late My Lady Friend" makes it an instant classic. It should be a standard. As usual, Harry's voice beautifully swirls around a lush arrangement and leaves us begging for more of the same.
But we aren't given time to greive when the song concludes - for following it is a version of "She's Leaving Home" that is so good it even challenges the Beatles original, which had incidentally only been available for a week when Harry cut his version! It's on tracks like this when we can fully appreciate the concept of Harry as the fifth blonde-Beatle.
"There Will Never Be" is a nice jazzy track in the same ilk as "Fascinating Rhythm" and is just the kind of song Harry sounds at home with. A very interesting arrangement and overall fine performance.
But the bona fide classic "Without Her" that follows is easily qualifiable as one of the finest 60s records by anyone! Gentle vocals, beautiful instrumentation and wonderful tune and lyrics make a fine potion. It's a potion too tempting to leave behind. We go back to it all the time.
"Freckles" harks back to Harry's childhood. His mother would sing it to him in the car, when it rained. She'd use the slap of the wind sheild wipers as a back beat. And that's pretty much the tempo used here. The lyrics are extremely amusing, and totally believable. We all knew a kid like the one in the song. We either knew one or we WERE that kid! You know, the one who gets blamed for putting tacks on teachers chair despite the presence of a further 100 pupils. The kid who gets blamed by the cat breeder who's moggy gives birth to a litter, all grey except for one little brown one. It's pitiful - but it happens the world over!
A mood change in "It's Been So Long" has Nilsson displaying his vocal acrobatics yet again set to a cool tune. Music doesn't get much better than this, and the album is already drawing to a close.
What's this next song? "River Deep-Mountain High"?? Oh no - not that one. Oh well, the rest of the album was great, I suppose we'll have to put up with the closer. But wait! The track sounds different. DIFFERENT! WOW! The arrangement is by far the most intriguing I ever heard and Harry's soaring 3-and-a-half-octave voice blew me away when I first heard it and still has the same effect on me even today.
A few lines of jokey banter from the "boxing promoter" (who STILL can't pronounce the album title!!) leads us to the conclusion of this startlingly excellent debut album. The Beatles were hooked - John Lennon hinted Nilsson as his favourite American singer - Paul McCartney hinted him as his favourite American Group (an accolade previously bestowed upon Sophie Tucker, as revealed during the 1964 Royal Variety Performance). We're all hooked. It's a gem.