Friday, September 2, 2016

Video of the Day: Laura Nyro’s ‘Stoned Soul Picnic,’ Covered by Swing Out Sister

Fifty years ago this month, “Wedding Bell Blues” was released as a single. It climbed to Number One on the charts for the Fifth Dimension in 1967 and has been covered many times since then (including by Lesley Gore and on the TV show Glee), but for me and countless others, there was no substitute for the original.

Laura Nyro wrote “Wedding Bell Blues” for her first album, More Than a New Discovery (retitled in 1973 as The First Songs by Columbia Records). For sheer listening pleasure, from first note to last, it’s hard to improve on this. The sad thing was that it reaped far greater rewards for the artists who covered its tunes (Blood, Sweat and Tears, Barbra Streisand, and the Fifth Dimension) than herself.

When I first thought of this post, I was going to write that Nyro was one of the most influential female singer-songwriters of the Sixties. Now, I realize how limiting that is. Gender doesn’t matter. She was one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the whole postwar pop era, period.

In June 1976, I saw Nyro in concert in Holmdel, N.J. She was touring to promote her first album of original songs in five years, Smile, a collection that downplayed rock and soul in favor of jazz. Her performance that night, perhaps because it gave short shrift to her hits, was respectfully but not ecstatically received. Nobody quite knew of what to make of her new direction, and since then I wonder if that included Nyro herself.

The band Swing Out Sister shows an alternate path that Nyro might have taken into jazz, particularly in this cover version of “Stoned Soul Picnic,” another Nyro tune turned into gold by the Fifth Dimension. Though the core melody of this classic from the 1968 LP Eli and the Thirteenth Confession remains, the outstanding backup musicians—including percussionist, drummer, guitarist, and sax players—launch into surprising different chords toward the end that recall Junior Walker’s “Walk in The Night.”

Is the group’s style pop or is it jazz? Leery of music-industry pigeonholing, the band resists definition. Interviewed in 2013 by Kristi York Wooten for The Huffington Post, lead vocalist Corinne Drewery said, “Record companies have never known what to do with us. Jazz was a bit of a swear word when we started out, but acid jazz was OK. Whenever something new has come along, they’ve tried to squeeze us into that category, but we’d have to make up our own category, which would be something like ‘pizazz,’ like pop and jazz.”

The band has an abiding affection for Sixties pop tunes by the likes of Burt Bacharach, and Nyro’s is of a piece with this in its boundary-pushing and sometimes tricky meter shifts. That gives some degree of latitude to artists thinking of covering these tunes—including jazz musicians. That also happens to be the pre-band experience of Drewery’s musical and life partner, keyboardist-pianist-arranger Andy Connell.

Most important, the harmonies of Drewery and backup singer Gina Foster retain the blissed-out counterculture vibe of the original. But the effervescent Drewery makes a greater effort to engage the audience than Nyro did.

Drewery and Connell helped form Swing Out Sister nearly 30 years ago, but I only just discovered them recently, while searching YouTube for covers of Nyro songs. I can see that I’ll have a lot of fun making up for lost time in listening to them.

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