Various Artists

This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson, Vol. 1

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Harry Nilsson was one of the best pop songwriters of the '60s and '70s, but he was also among the most idiosyncratic -- his best and best-known music was usually playful, but often had a sour side, as if he didn't fully trust his own joy and was chuckling at things he knew weren't always funny, and while he frequently expressed a nostalgia for America's past, he was clearly aware of the undercurrent of pain and dashed hopes that were part of his stories. Ultimately, it's easy to read Nilsson's songs in many ways, and that explains a lot about This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson, Vol. 1, in which a handful of indie rock acts offer their interpretations of material from Nilsson's catalog (one of whom is Annie Nilsson, Harry's daughter, who also contributes the cover artwork). First and foremost, everyone here appreciates Nilsson's gift for a melody, and practically all these performances demonstrate how marvelously malleable these tunes can be, as Langhorne Slim turns "Early in the Morning" into a New Orleans-style R&B number, Church of Betty add layers of sitar and Indian percussion to "Without You," the Wiyos put a ragtime spin on "Nobody Cares About the Railroad Anymore," and Rasputina's cello-driven re-imagining of "Sweethaven" (from the movie Popeye) walks a fine line between whimsy and conviction. At the same time, a few of the interpretations are puzzling at best; Dawn Landes attempts to turn the foul-mouthed kiss-off "You're Breaking My Heart" into a coy cocktail number, Mamie Minch's folky take on "Don't Forget Me" strives too hard for a rustic effect that doesn't quite fit, and there's too much pop polish on Tracy Bonham's version of "Everybody's Talkin'" (which was written by Fred Neil, though Nilsson was the one who scored a hit with it). Ultimately, too much of This Is the Town plays too sweet and self-conscious to make the most of the material, but it features a few genuinely lovely interpretations of fine, fine songs, and any album that includes "1941," "Me and My Arrow," "Rainmaker," "I Said Goodbye to Me," and "Without Her" is an album that's at least worth a cursory listen.

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