1/ Brown Earth (Nyro) 4.11 2/ When I Was a Freeport and You Were a (Nyro) 2.46 Main Drag 3/ Blackpatch (Nyro) 3.36 4/ Been On a Train (Nyro) 5.52 5/ Up on the Roof (Goffin,King) 3.15 6/ Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp (Nyro) 5.34 7/ Map to the Treasure (Nyro) 8.09 8/ Beads of Sweat (Nyro) 4.44 9/ Christmas in My Soul (Nyro) 7.04 Recording location unspecified Engineered by Tim Geelan Assistant Engineers: Doug Pomeroy and Jerry Smith Produced by Arif Mardin and Felix CavaliereLaura Nyro: vocal, piano; (1-5) Roger Hawkins: drums; Eddie Hinton: electric guitar; Dave Hood: bass; Barry Becket: vibes; Jack Jennings: percussion; Felix Cavalierre: organ, bells; Stu Sharf: acoustic guitar; (6-9) Dino Danelli: drums; Chuck Rainey: bass; Cornel Dupree: electric guitar; Ralph MacDonald: percussion; Ashod Garabedian: oud; Michael Szittui: cimbalin; Alice Coltrane: harp; Joe Farrell: woodwinds.
Musical Arrangements by Laura Nyro and Arif Mardin
Conducted by Arif Mardin
1970 - Columbia Records (USA), PC 30259 (Vinyl) 1990 - Columbia Records (USA), CK 30259 (CD)
Somewhat strangely, Christmas ranks as the most neglected album of Nyro's early career - more so, even, than 1971's Gonna Take a Miracle, the acclaimed collection of soul and R&B covers recorded in Philadelphia with Gamble and Huff on production duties and vocal trio Labelle on harmonies. It is also seen by some as the weak link of the trilogy of deeply intense, original works Nyro fashioned at the peak of her creativity in her early twenties. In reality, there is no such 'weak link' - Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is home to several extraordinary Nyro originals. But, granted, it does not possess quite the breathtaking originality of Eli or Tendaberry.
The reason for this is perhaps because it does not really bring any new elements to the table - by now, Nyro's trademarks, such as her tempo and rhythmic changes, her distinctive piano lines, her multi-octave vocal swoops, had become familiar. That doesn't mean they got worse or tiresome, but there is not the monumental leap between predecessor New York Tendaberry and Christmas that there was between 1967 debut More Than A New Discovery and Eli, and then between Eli or Tendaberry.
Instead, Christmas can perhaps be described as an amalgam of Eli and Tendaberry in that it is divided between joyous, uplifting soulful pop songs and more expansive, experimental, piano-driven epics. Christmas has its own distinctive flavour in that it is more exotic and Oriental-sounding than its predecessors; there are subtle Latin inflections in the rhythms and arrangement of "Blackpatch," and of course the Oriental arrangement and melodic structure of "Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp" and aquatic harp lines in "Map to the Treasure." This softer and more exotic sound would resurface on 1976's Smile; if there is a new element added to Nyro's sound on this album, then this is it. It's a subtle addition but definitely gives the record its own distinct sound.
The original album was split with two bands playing on the different sides. This was not pre-arranged but, as producers Felix Cavaliere and Arif Mardin explained, just happened that way. The first side features the accompaniment of the Swampers band from Muscle Shoals, lending the songs an easygoing feel, while the second side features an array of musicians including Duane Allman on electric guitar on "Beads of Sweat" and Alice Coltrane on harp. As a result, the album is perhaps not as unified as Eli or Tendaberry, and maybe suffers for that reason, but the individual songs are first-rate.
"Brown Earth" is a gloriously uplifting gospel-soul number that doesn't really sound like any other Laura Nyro original; it rises from almost whispered verses to a rousing hook of "white dove's gonna come today / oh what a morning / it feels so good / oh what a morning / of brotherhood," with a multi-tracked choir of soulful, impassioned Nyros singing on the "white dove" and "oh what a morning" lines. If anything, the gospel soul sound is almost a precursor to her next project, the covers album Gonna Take a Miracle. In any case, it's a rousing and effective opener, with beautifully conventional but effective piano lines.
The following "When I Was A Freeport and You Were the Main Drag" is more upbeat and features the return of Nyro's familiar syncopated piano lines; it also displays her oft-missed sense of humour. An album like New York Tendaberry was more intent on dramatics and theatrics than humour, so "Freeport" is a welcome change of tone for Nyro; it's also a bolder, sassier, feistier Nyro on this song than the "delicate romantic" some may perceive her to be. The song is incredibly melodic and catchy and among her best in this up-tempo, jaunty category, featuring such jewel lines as "I got a lot of patience baby / that's a lot of patience to lose."
The laidback, easygoing feel continues into the Latin-accented "Blackpatch," a joyous mid-tempo snapshot of a day in the life of a city woman, maybe Nyro herself. Only Nyro could make such everyday events as sending out party invitations and hanging out the washing sound beautiful and energised, but she ends the song with a knowing lyric, "womanchild on a sidestreet / flashing in blackpatch / lipstick on her reefer / waiting for a match." Nyro's poetry is incredibly evocative and unique, but the words fit remarkably into ultra-catchy pop melodies, which is one of her finest skills. "Blackpatch" boasts one of the finest and most sophisticated pop-soul melodies on the album, and its arrangement, incorporating horns and congas, is tasteful and imaginative.
The tone of the album changes drastically on the six-minute piano epic "Been on a Train," Nyro's second "train" song about hard drugs, following from "Poverty Train," which she debuted at June 1967's Monterey Pop Festival. "Been on a Train" is looser than its predecessor, moodier and more intense. Nyro's detached vocal delivery on the verses is chilling, while her piano lines are much simpler than normal, putting the spotlight onto her lyrics. The song unexpectedly but dramatically changes gears when Nyro's voice rises to a gospel soar - "you got more tracks on you baby, than the tracks of this train" - before she screams out, "No! No! Damn you mister!" in her inimitable New York Tendaberry style, before leaping into a feverish tempo change, only to settle back into the moodiness of the verses again. Its placement amid the uplifting, soulful pop songs of side one is all the more effective and for that reason, "Been on a Train" is a standout. But as a song itself, it remains effective as a portrait of a heroin addict, possibly influenced by the death of Nyro's cousin from a heroin overdose in October 1969.
The mood switches back from the darkness and despair of "Been on a Train" to a sense of easygoing, romantic uplift for "Up on the Roof" by Gerry Goffin and Carole King - at that time, the very first cover version Nyro had recorded. It fits right into the mood, though, and it's not a stretch to think of it as a Nyro original. More conventional, perhaps, but melodically it has something in common with Nyro originals. It's a great performance with a beautiful arrangement, and was selected as the album's single in the autumn of 1970. Ironically, this cover version became Nyro's biggest hit in her own right, Nyro being famed as a successful songwriter for other artists.
Side two is more expansive and exotic. It begins with the superb "Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp," one of Nyro's finest songs. It is musically sophisticated, with a beautiful Oriental-inspired arrangement and one of Nyro's most haunting and evocative piano melodies. Her vocal performance is also top-notch, as are the poetic lyrics, which detail a "sleepy woman by the window / dreaming in the morning air / of the man who takes her sweetness / by a Chinese lamp upstairs." It's gorgeous, romantic, and sensual, and an album highlight. It then segues into an eight-minute epic, "Map to the Treasure," which opens with Alice Coltrane's watery, exotic harp, which resurfaces at some points throughout the song. "Map to the Treasure" is a mood piece, really, with wispy verses that give way to an extended and memorable piano solo that gradually increases in speed and intensity, before Nyro comes back with the vocal hook, "in the treasure of love," only to fade away again. It is sensual, as with "Chinese Lamp," but sexual too ("for you I bear down / soft and burning"), and the music mirrors the excitement of sex.
"Beads of Sweat" is next; it starts in much the same way as "Map to the Treasure," with a cooing Nyro intoning over a barely-there piano, "cold jade wind..." but then surges into the most driving, hard-rocking song Nyro ever recorded. Its closest relative is "Eli's Comin'," which shares much of the same lyrical conceit and same musical urgency, but "Beads of Sweat," featuring Duane Allman on guitar, is probably harder-rocking and just as intense. It's an unexpected change of pace for Nyro but is another strong composition with several hooks. It has a kind of gospel fervour that marks it out as one of Nyro's most inspired and original efforts.
The album closes with another epic, the seven-minute "Christmas In My Soul," a poem Nyro set to music. It is unfortunate that Nyro ended the album on a disappointingly earnest note; it is the first real place where Nyro explores political matters - she sings of "the sins of politics, the politics of sin" - and her specific detailing of the Chicago Seven and "Black Panther brothers" dates the song and forces it into a corner, so to speak. It has little in common with the evocative, imaginative, successful poetic lyrics Nyro was writing in other songs at the time. Musically, too, it is rather overbearing, with some misplaced bells and military drums overstating the point. The melody is not one of Nyro's most illuminating, and her vocal is pitched firmly in the upper register throughout, which makes the song a little hard work. It retains a sense of drama and ambition that is pleasing to see, but other songs on the album are also dramatic and ambitious - "Been on a Train" and "Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp"/"Map to the Treasure," for instance - but are also wholly successful. "Christmas In My Soul" is a suitably epic end to the album, but it's actually one of the weaker and less successful songs here.
Laura Nyro probably did not intend to "retire" from the music business after this album. In concerts in 1970-72, she was performing some new songs that had not yet been recorded - "I Am the Blues," "American Dove," "Children of the Junks," "Mother Earth" - that suggest she was still thinking of making a record of new songs. Instead, she did a record of oldies in 1971 before marrying and leaving the spotlight for four years. But in truth, the extraordinary twin peaks of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry represent a level of intense creativity that probably left Nyro understandably exhausted. At 22, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat is probably the sound of a woman relaxing just a little, cooling off after two or three years of intense, passionate music. That's not to say that Christmas does not fit that category - you would be hard-pressed to find songs as intense or passionate as "Been on a Train," "Map to the Treasure," or "Beads of Sweat" - but there is a certain softening in the sound here that suggests Nyro's artistry was subtly changing. Indeed, "Christmas In My Soul" looks outward for largely the first time, and when Nyro returned in 1976, she was writing more about political and social concerns as well as writing about her personal life. So, in a sense, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat represents a crucial turning point in Laura Nyro's music - it closes the chapter on her first period of original songs (and what a purple patch it was), and at the same time hints at her artistic evolution to come. As an album in its own right, it deserves more praise as being one of Nyro's finest and most enduring efforts and is a worthy final act of an extraordinary trilogy.
bron31 (courtesy of the Rate Your Music website)
CHRISTMAS AND THE BEADS OF SWEAT was a critical disaster when it was released in 1970, and even as late as the 1990s ROLLING STONE critics described it as Laura Nyro's single worst recording. But the reassesment of her work that followed in the wake of Nyro's death has now placed the album as the equal of Nyro's earlier ELI & THE 13TH CONFESSION and NEW YORK TENDABERRY--something that Nyro fans could have told the critics all along.
In some ways the difficulties in evaluating this recording are understandable. Nyro's ELI and TENDABERRY recordings have a uniquely timeless quality, and it would be difficult for a first-time listener to fix them at any particular year or even decade; SWEAT, however, is very distinctly rooted in the emerging music of the 1970s. But more to the point, the album sounds commercial while it is actually one of the least commercial recordings Nyro ever created: throughout SWEAT, Nyro repeatedly uses pop-music idioms, but she never actually allows them to evolve into anything that could be remotely described as pop music per se, and in the process she repeatedly leaves the listener hanging, waiting for musical phrases that she never creates. The result is a very strange tension between what one expects to hear and what one actually gets.
Of the nine selections on this recording, the two that inevitably take the most heat from critics are "Map to the Treasure" and the title cut "Christmas In My Soul;" oddly, however, they both bear a striking similarity to the most celebrated cuts from the recording: "Brown Earth," "Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp," and "Beads of Sweat." In all of these selections, Nyro constantly plays with dymanics, shifting--sometimes gradually, sometimes with jarring rapidity--between loud and soft, fast and slow, at times pounding the piano and pushing her vocals to strident tones, at times dropping into semi-whispered vocals and the barest of bell-like chords. Her approach certainly takes some getting used to, and unless you are prepared to repeatedly listen to this album in order to fully grasp Nyro's odd aesthetic you might do best to leave it alone completely.
But if you are prepared to think critically about what you hear, CHRISTMAS AND THE BEADS OF SWEAT is a truly remarkably and rewarding recording, and it is particularly noteworthy in the way it builds and falls away then rebuilds and falls away again from selection to selection, playing passion against exhaustion and frenzy against thoughtfulness. Nyro is in full control of her voice, her instrument, and her material here; this is the artist very close to the peak of her talents, working talisman-like and ritualistic lyrics into a seamless blend with her kaliedscopic piano-based fusion of funk-folk-freeform. A favorite and strongly recommended.
5 stars out of 5
Gary F. Taylor "GFT" (courtesy of Amazon.com)