Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Reign of Nyro

It's a little hard to place the late, great Laura Nyro, who originated such late '60s-early '70s classics as "When I Die," "Stoned Soul Picnic," and the subject of today's post, her ebullient, open-hearted "Wedding Bell Blues," which was a hit for the Fifth Dimension. Sitting somewhere between Carole King and Joni Mitchell, between Brill Building pop/soul and sui generis singer/songwriter, the dark-haired, Bronx-born Nyro seems above all to have been ahead of her time, as Elvis Costello suggested on his talk show Spectacle, in conversation with Elton John (whose piano-based pop/gospel pastiche makes a useful comparison to Nyro's work, come to think of it). Today, it's clear, Nyro would be right at home somewhere between Amy Winehouse and Fiona Apple.

Part of what sets Nyro's work apart is a paradox: Her songs have a seemingly unconventional, even free-ranging structure, which captures a sort of stream-of-consciousness feeling, but they typically employ a sophisticated pop sound that we don't associate with rambling coffeehouse bards. So the effect is often pleasant and deceptively straightforward, but pay even a little attention, or try to follow along, and you're likely to find yourself lost.

"Wedding Bell Blues" is a great case in point, because at first it sounds like a sunny girl-group rave-up, though with an unmistakeable strain of melancholy. These contrasting emotional colors, I think you'll see, are achieved by some tricky, unexpected songcraft that creates a sense of simultaneous rising and falling, of backward and forward motion, that's appropriate for the song's lyric, in which a young woman pleads with a recalcitrant lover to "marry me, Bill."

The song kicks off with a quintessential '60s progression that encapsulates the up-down oscillation to come, as inexorable as "All Along the Watchtower," say, but so much brighter: F major 7, with the E natural on top, then Em7 with the D on top, then Dm7 with the C on top. That gives us the lovely parallel motion of sevenths: E over F, D over E, C over D. And then it slides back up, Em7 to FMaj7, and the vocal enters on a piercing C with the long note "Bill."

The innovation has already begun: The first four bars, repeating the words, "Bill/I love you so/I always will," will return as the song's chorus, though they really sound more like a tag or place holder--like a part of a chorus, or the end of a chorus, but not the whole thing. We'll see why soon enough. After resolving to C, the song's home key, what I can only call a post-chorus follows, because the lyrics are different each time: It's here that our heroine tells Bill, in various ways, that he hangs the moon but will he ever propose? This eight-bar section, too, has the bounce and swell of a chorus, or something leading into a chorus. But it doesn't: Next is what would have to be the verse, over a ii-V-iii-VI progression, in which the singer bolsters her case with proofs of her fidelity through tough times. That continues for eight bars, then starts ascending from on the ii (Dm) again--and before we know it (in just two bars, in fact), we've hit G and are back at the top of the FMaj7 rollercoaster with "Bill."

Here's where this four-bar chorus earns its keep: It functions both as a tag/add-on at the end of the verse and as the start of a new chorus. What Nyro has done is essentially build two complete forms, a 12-bar verse and a four-bar chorus, then locked them together with an imperceptible overlap--in this case, a two-bar overlap, so that the verse plays for 10 bars and the chorus 4, or the verse 12 and the chorus 2, though what it really sounds like to our ear is a complete 12-bar verse and a complete four-bar chorus, just laid over each other in that two-way two-bar embrace. Couple this trick with the fact that the song has essentially unfolded backwards, intensity-wise--the chorus that started it felt like the end of a chorus, the post-chorus that came next sounded like it was building up to a chorus, and the verse that followed that brought the energy back down--and you have some sense how this ebullient, carefree-sounding song manages to pack such an emotional punch.

The construction all pays off in the end, when she breaks off in the middle of the third post-chorus--tellingly, just after the point she's stopped asking when and has simply told Bill, "But you're never gonna say your wedding vows"--and grooves with her backup singers on the plea, "Come on and marry me, Bill," for a spell (and citing the song's title in passing) before going back to the descending "Bill/I love you so" chorus. Which, by this point, is sounding more and more like defeat: "I love you so/I always will," after all, removes any pressure for Bill to act. And so, that chorus that sounded like the end of a chorus indeed serves as the song's bittersweet ending. And in less than three minutes Nyro has both celebrated the empowerment of a woman who can call her man on the carpet for not proposing, and even playfully propose herself, and captured the sadness of a woman who's had to resort to such a drastic measure. Speaking for myself, if I were on the fence, this song would convince me.

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