Every day’s a school day. As it turns out, I’ve been mispronouncing Laura Nyro’s name wrong, for as long as I’ve heard of Laura Nyro. According to the liner notes of the 2020 reissue of her debut album More Than a New Discovery, writer Joe Marchese reveals that it should be pronounced near-oh as opposed to nigh-ro. Who knew? Was it everyone but me?
Originally released in 1967 – modern pop music’s year zero – More Than a New Discovery failed to make the splash it was intended to make. Instead, it served as a glorified demo tape for New Yorker Nyro’s, startlingly mature songwriting. Listening now to the 12 songs, squeezed into this 35-minute collection, it’s hard to believe that she was all of 19 years old when she recorded them. What were you doing when you were 19? Probably not making a record, produced by Harry Belafonte’s pianist.
If you owned a radio in the 1970s, you’ve heard “Stoney End”, as sung by Barbra Streisand. Or Diana Ross. Or Linda Ronstadt. You may not have heard it by the writer, which is a shame, as Nyro did a great version of it on this record. Likewise, “And When I Die” was a huge hit for Three Dog Night, and “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Blowin’ Away” were both hits for the 5th Dimension. She was doomed to be a name in the brackets of hit records, but never on the cover of them.
The production on this record is pure 1967. Not Sgt Pepper proto psychedelic 1967, or Velvet Underground & Nico proto fauvist punk 1967, but hip, MOR 1967. You can almost see Sammy Davis Jr tapping his beige Hush Puppies approvingly in the corner of the studio. I guarantee that all the musicians who worked on this album were referred to as “cats”. Well, those cats did a great job. Some of the arrangements work better than others – “Goodbye Joe” swings along beautifully, but the strident brass almost overpowers Nyro’s voice in places. It’s still pretty groovy. “Billy’s Blues” is the dictionary definition of smoky, late nite bar chanteuse style and might be the best song on the record. On this tune, the arrangement is perfectly measured and fits her beautifully.
There are four hit singles on this album, but none of them were hits for Nyro. She got close to the Billboard Top 100 with the gorgeous “Wedding Bell Blues”, but I guess that wasn’t close enough. Despite the lack of sales, it seems she had the ear of many of her contemporaries. Everyone from Carole King to (especially) Todd Rundgren was listening and dozens of albums in the wake of More Than a New Discovery tipped their hats to it, in the form of a chord progression, a melody or a vocal inflection. On this record, Nyro was forbidden to play piano as her accomplished but eccentric style was deemed unsuitable by the producer, so she concentrated solely on her singing. Here, she hints at what she would be truly capable of as a vocalist on her next two records – Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry, but for a 19-year-old cutting her first album, you really shouldn’t complain.
It’s hard to figure out why this record didn’t propel Nyro further up the ladder as an artist and not just a writer. The songs are great. She sings them well. It’s neatly produced (as this mono reissue testifies), and she was every inch, the pale and interesting, female singer-songwriter that got music critics frothing at the mouth. Sadly, the moment passed, and then it was 1976, and we had the Ramones. Blue-eyed soul and introspection were soon to be replaced by something a lot more primal. By the time we realized what she was, she was gone.
When we think about 1967, we think of Are You Experienced, The Doors and Forever Changes et al. Spare a thought for More Than a New Discovery. A great record, released in a year of brilliant records, it was doomed almost from the start. In 2020, we get to hear it without the weight of expectation on its shoulders, and if you’ve ever enjoyed music by Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Rickie Lee Jones, and countless others, you’re probably going to enjoy this. I mean, every day’s a school day, right?