Harry Nilsson’s musical taste ran the gamut of 20th century pop styles. He would borrow a Tin Pan Alley phrase one second, delve into ragtime, and then re-emerge into hard rock and avant-garde classical the next measure. No wonder rock’s royalty, from Little Richard to Phil Spector to Randy Newman to John Lennon, would sing his praises and call him a genius. Lennon even once tried to re-form The Beatles with Nilsson taking Paul McCartney’s place. There are many high points in the late Nilsson’s career, but most critics point to his animated film soundtrack The Point from 1971 as his crowning achievement. While he had bigger hits, the single “Without You” reached number one on the Billboard charts, and other songs like “Coconut”, “Everybody’s Talkin’”, and “Spaceman” are well known, the tracks on The Point displayed Nilsson’s creative versatility, emotional depths, and intellectual acuity most profoundly.
So it’s not surprising these songs have been re-discovered and re-interpreted by contemporary artists like Andrew Bird, DeVotchKa, Martha Wainwright, Nada Surf, and others. As The Point was originally the soundtrack to a kid’s movie, it seems only fitting that the musicians donated their time and effort for the children’s writing program 826NYC. The whole point of The Point is that the central kid character should have the freedom to engage in imaginative thought.
Nilsson’s version was as quirky as the author himself. Thankfully, these remakes capture his spirit without slavishly imitating his style. The best tracks here—and indeed each of the 8 cuts are splendid—offer new versions of the material. Take Sex Mob and Catherine Russell’s sultry take on “Poli High”. The songs sounds like it would be right at home on a New Orleans’ street during Mardi Gras, far removed from its initial context, but right in the spirit of the eccentric original one. Russell also contributes her inimitable vocals to the final cut, “Down to the Valley” with Matthew Caws, Dawn Landes, and Nathaniel Rateliff. It’s a playful, joyous song that for some reason did not make the original soundtrack.
It’s unclear why these 8 tracks were chosen from the original 14 (or 16 if you count the extended release that came out later), but that seems unimportant. The cuts here are the best kind of children’s songs. They are fun without being cloying, innocent without being dumb. As Andrew Bird shows on “Think About Your Troubles”, a kid can be as depressed as an adult with the vagaries of life and arbitrariness of authority, yet be complex enough to contain the contrary emotions and fight back against the blues. Bird lets his instruments vibrate and howl in scary ways that transform themselves into the promise of something brighter and special.
Nada Surf takes the score’s best-known track, “Me and My Arrow” and let the buoyancy of the melody carry the gentle lyrics about a boy and his dog. They add a carnivalesque accompaniment, but let the simple song stay simple. The other artists, like Dawn Landes, Martha Wainwright and Jim Campilongo, employ similar strategies. They offer uncluttered, weirdly-affected, instrumental accompaniment to their vocals, which lets the songs resonate sweetly on their own frequencies.
While it’s a good thing that the money made here goes to charity, the best thing about it may be that it drives younger audiences to seek out the original movie and soundtrack. The movie and music are far too good to be forgotten. These re-interpretations stand on their own merits, but Nilsson’s originals should be heard as well.