Laura Nyro's first album in four years fails to live up to the promise of her lovely early records. While Smile has a certain charm to it, which grows with repeated listenings, there is a striking absence of the classic pop melodies that characterize the songs on Eli & the Thirteenth Confession, The First Songs and New York Tendaberry, many of which (in versions by other artists) became big hits. Instead, Nyro goes for a more exotic, jazz-tinged approach which, while occasionally interesting, ignores the basis of her initial... Read More
Nyro is not, and never was, a great singer, although some of the versions on her oldies album, Gonna Take a Miracle, became affecting, pushed into shape by Labelle. On her own, her soprano seems constantly to overreach; she lacks both range and emotional timbre. This is possibly the least diverse voice in popular music, except for Joni Mitchell's, which it resembles in its enervating sameness.
Nor are her lyrics much more than sententious babble, though (as such things will) they have apparently developed a cult following. Of the best of her early work, "Wedding Bell Blues" is banal, "Sweet Blindness" wordy and incoherent, "Save the Country" fatuous Only "And When I Die" has anything cogent to say. Similarly, Smile's "Children of the Junks," a marvelous double-entendre, loses its potential in a welter of clichéd images; "Money," which might have been a moving description of her rather tragic business strife, is simply maudlin; "I Am the Blues" is real bottom-desk-drawer stuff.
But it was neither Nyro's singing nor her lyrics which brought her songs to the attention of artists as diverse as the Fifth Dimension and Barbra Streisand. They responded to her melodies, as did the public. And melody is just what slips away in Smile's wash of pretentiousness. The best number here, "Sexy Mama," was written by Sylvia Robinson (not Smokey, who was unaccountably credited with it in several major reviews), also responsible for Shirley and Company's "Shame, Shame, Shame." "Money" moves at a nice pace but it meanders on far too long. The rest simply begs not to be taken seriously, which clearly isn't deliberate. Most of the arrangements seem either cluttered or forced, like trying to merge Alice Coltrane and Carole King. She ought to knock it off and go back to being the crazy kid from the Bronx we all used to love. (RS 212)