A committed staple of all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, the eclectic yet decidedly appropriate soundtrack. Like any self respecting crate-digger, Tarantino looks at pop music with a hungry eye, willing to approach ubiquitous chart hits as fervently as cult-hits and obscurities. After all, the world of music is a big place and it’s all pretty fun when you get down to it. And if you say yes to Neu!, then why not Dick Dale or Johnny Cash or Al Green or... Harry Nilsson?
Take a look at Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You", as applied to the most memorable moment of Tarantino’s 90's cult classic Reservoir Dogs. Chopping off someone’s ear to the sounds of the super seventies, you know. As if that pairing wasn’t likely, Harry Nilsson’s idiosyncratic 70's pop hit, “Coconut" is called on to close the merciless movie in a humorous, almost nonchalant fashion. Perhaps a fitting way to introduce Nilsson to newer generations. Harry Nilsson created a niche for himself within the pop music spectrum in the late 60's and 70's through his diffuse, wry song writing and his wonderfully ranged voice. More rockier than Randy Newman and less so but comparable to the Beatles, Nilsson’s pop career began first as a writer for others, eventually maturing himself into the main feature. Between an album of Newman covers, befriending John Lennon and a tragic career cut short, Nilsson netted a few hits, his biggest, a cover of “Without You," one song off his most popular release, Nilsson Schmilsson
As noted, Nilsson’s work is informed by Beatlesque pop, closely relatable to the skills and mannerisms of McCartney. Nilsson’s firm grasp on melody and accessibility as well as the ability to make damn catchy tunes is the most defining characteristic of his catalog. On Nilsson Schmilsson
, he makes this most apparent on the albums two opening tracks, “Gotta Get Up" and “Driving Along". The peppy attack of “Gotta Get Up" glows with effervescence, the lilting piano fights off horns and a well placed accordion. “Driving Along" manages the same pop mystique, following the slightly oppressed lyricism of “Gotta Get Up" with an equally cynical set of its own. “They seem to go farther/They seem to go nowhere," Nilsson recants, yet sounds as though he’s glad that “The people seem to have nothing to say to each other". Nilsson’s fantastic upper-register vocals make their first appearance of the album on “Driving Along" as well, noting the exact range that he was capable of before he ruptured his vocal chords.
The power of these vocals are what makes “Without You" such a success. A wistful love ballad originally by Badfinger, Nilsson takes the song to melodramatic heights. Each verse is very understated and quiet and because of this, Nilsson’s booming, almost theatrical chorus stands out all the more. The song is of a very classy, baroque pop ballad nature, full of grand orchestral sweeps and is almost as dramatic as Nilsson as he builds his desperate plea. It’s easy to see why the song was such a hit but the song is not very evocative of Nilsson’s own song writing style as a whole, even when compared to love lorn songs of his own like the melancholy album closer, “I’ll Never Leave You." While still hold strong to the traits of baroque pop, Nilsson’s own style is slightly less melodramatic and some parts sounding almost child-like amidst the swelling strings and the longing ode.
This sly, child-like presence looms large on my personal favorite track, “The Moonbeam Song". An acoustic guitar lulls about with a sort of country-ish strum accented only by an equally sleepy bass as Harry asks, “Have you ever watched a moonbeam/As it slid across your window pane?" and continues to floats about aimlessly in a stream of observations of said moonbeam. If you were ever looking for the perfect song to sit under a star-filled sky on some warm and lazy night, “The Moonbeam Song" is probably it. “Coconut" captures some of the same drifting daze and takes the bizarre humor a bit further. I think I could be driven quite mad if I was forced to listen to “Coconut" on repeat for too long. It’s one of those songs that is intriguing at first take but could probably run thin if overplayed. Simply designed with fumbling, tropical fingerpicking and flopping bass licks, the most memorable feature of “Coconut" is Nilsson’s spastic delivery, which actually probably the most interesting use of his vocal range. He squeals, whinnies, droops and plops about, finally fading on a frantic ending as everything coincides with far too much Pi’a Colada.
Making the pop-rock hat trick, Nilsson pulls out a couple of rockers as well, the most notable being the raucous “Jump Into the Fire," seven minutes of percussion-driven rock that could give a lot of Kraut-rock bands a run for their money. Hell, it’s got a guitar solo and
a frenzied drum solo. Seemingly out of place on an album full of three minute pop vignettes, “Jump Into the Fire" does stand out but in a good way. The earthy rock is not only executed well, it’s also a useful diversion from the airy balladry of other tracks.
It’s hard to pin down Harry Nilsson for long enough to get an exact and steady pulse on his brand of pop. Newman, McCartney, Wilson and Bacharach are all close reference points but not quite precise. Like Tarantino’s soundtracks, Nilsson ran around the amalgamated world of pop music making minimalist covers of R&B standards, bombastically baroque pop tunes, and bittersweet ballads. I bet it would have been interesting to gauge the reactions of those who bought Nilsson Schmilsson
based on “Without You," a song that does not allude to the various shades of disheveled quirkiness that the album cover suggests. That’s not to say what Nilsson provides on the album is truly enigmatic, inaccessible nor some unique beast, though. It’s just that it’s inimitably Nilsson, for the betterment pop lovers.