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Harry Nilsson: A legend gone, but not forgotten

Last updated on January 6, 2022

Fifty years ago, John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy changed perceptions of sexuality. To this day, it is the only X-rated film named Best Picture by the Academy. Harry Nillson’s anthem “Everybody’s Talkin’” is inextricably linked to the film it appears in, and the song served as a guidepost, defining generations trying to find themselves.

Beyond the film, the legendary Harry Nilsson has become recognized as a master of the craft, particularly after his genius had time to gestate in other’s talent. Such is the case with the pure, brilliant talent assembled here for This is the Town (Vol. 2): A Tribute To Nilsson. The collection is a fitting tribute to this songwriter’s prolific genius. This deep dive into one of American music’s greatest catalogs is now available on limited edition orange vinyl via Royal Potato Family. Kenny Siegal revisits the producer’s seat in this follow-up to This Is the Town (Vol. 1), working his magic in Old Soul Studios in Catskills, New York.

Mikaela Davis takes her classically trained harpist swagger to the strut of “Take 54.” Etienne de Rocher’s subtle “Wasting My Time” is so right that it feels like Nilsson’s watching somewhere, whistling along. Robin Zander’s growling rock in “Ambush” makes sense as Cheap Trick takes the vibe right back to 1969, a country in confused chaos.

“This Could Be The Night” from Bart & The Bedazzled is a perky bit of sunshine that contrasts against the standout smokey jazz of “City Life” from Lauren Ruth Ward. Colored with subtle horns and just enough grit, the dark side of the city comes back into focus as clear as Ward’s vocal stylings.

Invisible Familiars’ “Old Forgotten Soldier” recalls the era in which this music came into being; ethereal vocals and soft piano wrapped with driving bass punctuate the truth of the times. Now we just have veterans suffering from PTSD who served in the Middle East. Has anything changed in fifty years? “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City” by Valley Queen is that moment when people will think Buck from Midnight Cowboy is strolling nearby. Drifting into the city with Belle-Skinner’s ukulele, “Open Your Window” is like sitting on the stoop, waiting for the sunset in Greenwich Village.

The essence of New York City resonates through each beat of “Driving Along” as a beat box throwdown from Adam Matta. The joy of albums like this is discovery, and wow! I plan on shaking Adam Matta’s hand at a show soon. Aching violin and a haunting cello embrace Nina Violet, even though we know “I’ll Never Leave You” is not true. “Turn On Your Radio” is a night light in Nilssons’s lyrics, sung with stunning grace by Arc Iris.

Closing out This is the Town (Vol. 2): A Tribute To Nilsson with “The Puppy Song” (Phoebe Siegal) makes sense. The point? Usually, genius in art is recognized too late, after a talent is taken from the world too young, leaving only songs behind. Like Midnight Cowboy, who fifty years ago won an award that made the establishment rethink what real genius on film could look like, the folks at Royal Potato Family show they know what genius sounds like.–Lisa Whealy