Laura Nyro,
Angel in the Dark
(Rounder, 2001)

I probably wasn't the best sibling. In the early 1970s, I went through my sister's belongings -- most notably, her record collection. My sister wasn't thrilled with me, but I don't regret my actions. Thanks to her good taste in music, I became a singer-songwriter fan long before the term existed. I was introduced to a number of notable singer-songwriters, particularly ones such as Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, musicians who continue to inspire their younger counterparts even today.

Laura Nyro was another artist I discovered on those clandestine music raids. Not even out of her teens when she started writing and recording in the '60s, Nyro wrote and performed material that became hits for top artists of the time, including Barbra Streisand ("Stoney End"), Blood, Sweat & Tears ("And When I Die"), the Fifth Dimension ("Stoned Soul Picnic," Wedding Bell Blues") and Three Dog Night ("Eli's Coming"). It is with both extreme regret and joy to listen to Angel in the Dark -- regret that ovarian cancer took Nyro's life at age 49 and joy to be able to hear her final musical project before cancer silenced her.

Listening to the title track, the album's first song, is akin to going back thirty years while staying boldly rooted in the present. Nyro's inviting piano and strong, yet reassuring, voice open the piece. She skips shyly and playfully up the scale on "of," as she gently sings the first line and evokes the "angels of my heart," but as she hits the second line, "come back to me," she's in her element in a lush, deeper register. It's the classic Nyro sound with a '90s feel. Joined by more instruments (including trumpet and saxophone) on the upbeat chorus, the song is never overwhelmed by them. Nyro's piano and lead vocal dominate, making the song an intimate call to her "angels in the dark," her deceased mother and grandfather, people whom she missed and needed. In "Triple Goddess Twilight," a slow soulful number, Nyro completes the call to her mother and grandfather, sharing with her listeners both the love and inspiration that these "angels" gave her.

All of the songs on this CD seem to concern love in one way or another. "Animal Dreams" is about Nyro's love for her dog that had recently died. "Sweet Dreams Fade" and "Gardenia Talk" both are light, jazzy, love songs with a definite pop feel. "Sweet Dreams Fade" is ready for the dance floor while "Gardenia Talk" has that happy-nervous lilt of spring and love.

While this 16-song CD features eight new Nyro compositions, the rest of the songs are covers of "classic" love songs written by songsmiths such as George Gershwin, Burt Bacharach and Carole King. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" includes some soft "sha-na-nas" on the backing vocals, but it's really an updated gentle, soulful and thoughtful version of King's hit. Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's "He Was Too Good for Me" also is slow and soulful with only Nyro's evocative vocal and piano. "Let It Be Me," penned by Becand and Kurtz, and the Gershwins' "Embraceable You" also are "solo" efforts. They don't need anything else. Nyro's voice and piano are enough to reach out to your heart.

This album soundly demonstrates Laura Nyro's extraordinary talent as both a songwriter and a performer. Some of the final songs Nyro composed, such as "Sweet Dreams Fade," weren't supposed to have been recorded on what turned out to be Nyro's last day in the studio. "Sweet Dreams Fade" hadn't been charted yet. Persuaded it indeed was ready, Nyro introduced it to the band. However, as with the other original songs on this CD, it doesn't sound as if it wants more practice. Nor does Nyro's voice reflect the chemotherapy treatments she'd already started before completing the project.

According to the CD booklet, the album almost was titled "Serious Playground." That song is positioned as track number six, but it almost feels as if it might be more appropriate thematically towards the end of the disc. With the knowledge that Nyro recorded these songs with cancer looming in the background, the lines "I'm down for the music/Of my life" take on even more meaning. For some reason, while Nyro's songs were hits for other artists, she didn't seem to receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime. Recordings made later in the '70s and into the '80s sometimes were hit and miss in terms of popularity. However, Angel in the Dark, recorded in 1994-95, a mere two years before Nyro's death, is proof of what she could do. And maybe, just maybe, some little sister (or brother) will root through an older sibling's music collection, come across this CD, find this album, and discover a "new" artist.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 14 July 2001

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