I’ve been doing this blogging thing for about 4 years now and I can’t believe I haven’t written about a Harry Nilsson album in all that time. So, I figured I’d rectify that. I thought I’d avoid writing about Schmillsson for now and instead share my thoughts on Pussy Cats. Like Duit On Mon Dei, it’s a curious listen; there are treasures and some of my favourite Harry Nilsson moments despite the awful production and his voice being shot to shit.
Now, the official site suggests he lost his voice and kept it from Lennon to avoid the project being abandoned, but Lennon’s ears must have been more fucked than the production suggests if he didn’t notice, so, while there is evidence that his voice wasn’t what it once was on previous releases, I tend to believe the version suggested in the documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? (a pretty exceptional documentary, which claims that the two of them were engaged in vocal hijinx that got out of hand). Regardless of what happened, it’s a shame, cause while the brittle rasp suits something like Don’t Forget Me or All My Life, it doesn’t really work the same with the likes of Subterranean Homesick Blues and Save The Last Dance and it certainly doesn’t really do anything to help with the assorted uninspired covers.
While I’m all for creativity and artistic statements over sales and pleasing the record execs, I could imagine, and appreciate, their bewilderment. Here’s two artists that have a great deal of respect and adulation… so, the potential to create something truly wonderful and shoot Harry back into the stratosphere. Sadly, the energy and creativity was spent getting drunk and thinking up new ways to fuck around in and out of the studio. Naturally, the label objected to the original title (Strange Pussies), but the less than subtle drugs reference on the cover highlights how smart these two jokers thought they were.
Anyhoo, let’s get to it… Pussy Cats starts off promisingly enough. Many Rivers To Cross is pretty good despite, or rather because of, Harry’s vocal. It’s affecting and the delivery of that “loneliness won’t leave you alone” line after the solo is exceptional. The music is very much John Lennon…. the guitar tone very much a ringer for that on his Jealous Guy. The wail at the outro is brilliant, too “looooooooooooaaaaaaaaasssssssssst”. But, and here’s the but, the production is claustrophobic. It may be inspired by Spector’s Wall of Sound, but it’s often suffocating and no more so than on Subterranean Homesick Blues. That one is a racket… sounding like layers of white noise and Harry is almost unrecognisable (regardless of the shape his voice was in, the vocal just doesn’t sit comfortably).
But, you know what? The next two tracks are the album’s highlights. The sparseness of Don’t Forget Me means that it’s not suffocated in any way and that’s a great thing, cause it’s stellar. Harry’s voice is broken and fragile, but the rawness and the tenderness really fits, and he knows how to use that voice… even when it’s limited. It’s clear that this song means something (top 5 Nilsson songs, this one – beautiful stuff). Likewise, All My Life deals with regret and his lifestyle, I guess. When Harry sings “I’m so tired of bad times I’ll have to change my way” it suggests that he’s very aware of his troubles. In fact, both these songs give a glipse at Harry’s vulnerability and both are poignant ruminations on the pain he’s endured and caused; though he isn’t above or beyond making light of it on the latter (“I’m so sore from laughing I haven’t got the will to fight”). The guitars of Danny Kootch and Jesse Ed Davis are brilliant and the strings are dizzying. It’s classic Nilsson. Side closer, Forgotten Soldier is stripped to its bones. Piano, guitar and some birds in there…
… and so too is Harry’s voice.
It’s a rasp…
he’s almost wheezing.
Straining for words and a breath.
Good grief, it’s affecting.
It makes me sad, as there’s not so much as a glimpse of the old Harry.
Side 2 kicks off with Save The Last Dance For Me. It evokes Schmillsson’s Without You during the intro. The piano… listen. You hear it? Anyhoo, the take is pedestrian… a deceiving drum shuffle suggests a change in pace that just doesn’t arrive. The vocal doesn’t quite land and it’s the first major ‘what if’ moment. It’s not dreadful, but it’s unremarkable and it feels stilted. Black Sails, on the other hand, is pretty wonderful and it’s as good as Harry sounds on the album. I’d hazard a guess that this was one of the first vocal takes put down. The strings are mournful and allow Harry’s vocal the opportunity to breathe and lead. It’s funny, but mournful… and I love the delivery of “so raise the anchor up! Hoist the canvas… sail me to my heart”.
I’ll not spend too much time on how Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga needs Harry or how Loop De Loop is pretty awful and Rock Around The Clock is a layer of white noise (it’s a bit like listening to music while wearing a grater as someone grates frozen carrots).
I realise that I’ve maybe been more negative about this one than positive… but, seriously, aside from the production and the album being shorn of Harry’s voice, it’s the dip in quality on side 2 that really lets the album down. Lennon was no Richard Perry, but you can understand why RCA would have felt positive about him doing this album. I dare say they thought “this is John Fucking Lennon! A bloody Beatle!! A guy who will harness Harry’s creative energy and inspire him!”. And just look at the supporting cast…
Instead, they got an album that could have been great and a Harry with a broken voice. Damn.
Still, I actually do (mostly) like this one. Or at least side one.
I found out that the album got a reissue there for Record Store Day, but copies of the original pressing can be found really cheap (I found mine for £3), so I can’t see the motivation for anyone looking to spend some good cash for a shiney RSD 2018 sticker. My advice: grab the original. Unless, of course, they’re somehow managed to make it sound less like shit.