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Reviews of rereleases from the late, great Laura Nyro.

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Laura Nyro

Live: The Loom's Desire
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
New York Tendaberry
Gonna Take a Miracle

She grew up singing on New York City street corners but also attended the prestigious High School of Music and Art. She was drawn to the intricate chord structures of jazzers John Coltrane and Miles Davis. She listened to Ravel and Debussy along with Smokey Robinson and Dusty Springfield. She dug Dylan. Had a soft spot for show music. She was entranced by the Leontyne Price opera records her mother played around the house. At once an ardent Manhattanite and a tree-hugger, she was an urban earth mother, if you will.

These myriad influences rendered Laura Nyro a certified eclectic, and eclectics don't often become pop stars. Nyro didn't. She did, however, write a slew of songs that became hits for other artists: Wedding Bell Blues, Stoned Soul Picnic, Blowing Away, Save The Country, and Sweet Blindness for the 5th Dimension; And When I Die for Blood, Sweat and Tears; Stoney End for Barbra Streisand; Eli's Coming for Three Dog Night. She also became a cult legend and highly influential herself, a beacon for artists like Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones.

So it's fitting that, five years after her death from ovarian cancer, there is a minor reawakening to this extraordinarily gifted artist. On the heels of last year's sublime Angel in the Dark, Rounder now unfurls the thoroughly charming Live: The Loom's Desire, a two-disc set of holiday concerts in '93 and '94 at the New York's Bottom Line. For its part, Columbia has reissued three Nyro titles from the late '60s and early '70s, including bonus tracks. Collectively, these discs portray Nyro's brilliance as well as a bit of her misdirected artistic ambition.

The Loom's Desire showcases a mature Nyro, an artist in her mid 40s still writing new material but comfortable with her old book and the classic R&B of her youth. By this point, she had a better handle on her improvisational impulses, and thus was able to artfully recast such classics as Dedicated to the One I Love, Wind and Ooh Baby, Baby. Further, her powerhouse voice, once given to operatic spasms of excess, is imbued with warmth and subtlety. The format is simple: Nyro accompanying herself on piano and backed about half the time by an all-woman harmony group. The vocal ensemble is a masterstroke, anchoring the timeless melodies of the vintage material as well as adding lush texture and moments of drama. The Loom's Desire is one of those albums whose beauty simply washes over you.

A quarter century earlier, in 1968, Nyro released her sophomore album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, the closest she ever came to a masterpiece. In the end, it was Nyro's eclecticism and tendency toward bombast that rendered Eli just short of a crowning achievement. Amid such brilliant pop fare as Stoned Soul Picnic and Sweet Blindness (5th Dimension versions don't hold a candle) come such cluttered, overwrought efforts as the labyrinthine, often shrill Timer and the meandering December's Boudoir — tunes so packed with melodic motifs that they slide out of focus.

The songs, and Nyro's voice, range from effervescent — the bouncy Luckie, the radiant Lu - to brash (Poverty Train) and torchy (Lonely Women). The most sophisticated song that still works is Emmie, a ballad that glides through stops and starts and a variety of rhythms.

Lyrically, the 21-year-old is positing some pretty heavy ideas. Sexual ambiguity is ever present, with gender roles in love songs blurred: Touch me/ Oh wake me/ Emily you ornament the earth for me. (Nyro was a lesbian, although probably not openly at the time.) Lonely Women comes from the mouth of a much older soul (No one hurries home/ To lonely women). Ditto for Poverty Train: You can see the walls roar/ See your brains on the floor/ become God/ become cripple/ become funky/ and split/ Why was I born.

While Eli is uneven, it reconciles the pain and joy that made Nyro such an enigmatic, fascinating artist.

The following year, she went overboard. New York Tendaberry is an admirable mess. Conceptualized as a love letter to her hometown, the album squeezes together so many melodies that the songs often sound open-ended and unresolved. Nyro's vocals are at their most melodramatic, shifting quickly from whisper to aria. Using only piano and orchestral color, she meanders through these abstract pieces, the rhythms wavering, slipping into the next fleeting section. Tendaberry does have its gorgeous and profound moments, but they're rarely allowed to develop.

Gonna Take a Miracle (1971), credited to Laura Nyro and Labelle, is a lighthearted summit between the shadowy New York songstress and three soul sistas from Philly. They guilelessly tackle the '50s/'60s R&B songbook, from the girl-group spring of Jimmy Mack to the Latinesque elegance of Spanish Harlem to the passionate swoon of the title track. The whole disc has an off-the-cuff feel. Nyro and Patti LaBelle trade unabashed high notes, and the background singing is refreshingly imprecise, as if the ladies knew they didn't need to rehearse. The production, by Philadelphia stalwarts Gamble & Huff, is appropriately unobtrusive, little more than basic rhythm section parts. The voices, and the songs, command the spotlight.

For some reason, Laura Nyro is historically regarded as a folkie, a categorization that simply does not hold up, especially in light of these releases. Early in her career, critics had yet to make genre stratification such a complex science — folk artist was likely the best anyone could come up with. But maybe it's more simple: Nyro was beyond category.

—Eric Snider

Live: The Loom's Desire (Rounder)

(Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (Columbia/Legacy)

(New York Tendaberry (Columbia/Legacy)

(Gonna Take a Miracle (Columbia/Legacy)

The Columbia titles are scheduled to be released June 25.

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