Harry Nilsson is no stranger to album-length cover projects. At his creative peak, the hedonistic early ’70s in L.A., Nilsson dragged an obscure American songwriter named Randy Newman into the public eye with the tasteful Nilsson Sings Newman. That record finds him interpreting Newman’s work as well as anyone since, showcasing Nilsson’s rich voice and seemingly effortless gift for melodic invention.
Given his striking voice, it’s funny that Nilsson is probably best remembered now as a songwriter, mainly due to the timeless “One” and “Without You.” Pussy Cats, a deeply odd record he made while in the midst of a year-long drinking competition with John Lennon, introduced him to a new audience after it was covered by indie heroes the Walkmen.
Which brings us to 2012, and our own indie heroes Brass Bed taking a swing at the Nilsson songbook. Their On Nilsson EP begins with a spectral take on “One,” which hews pretty close to the original while adding a distant, digital buzz. It’s a straightforward take on a spectacular song and a helpful introduction for those uninitiated in either Nilsson or Brass Bed.
The rest of this project sidesteps the more obvious highlights of Nilsson’s work, focusing instead on a pair of songs from the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s Popeye, starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. The film has been largely forgotten, but the songs have a pleasant Tin Pan Alley simplicity to them, and there is considerable charm in Allison Bohl’s performance. The high point, though, comes with a cover of “Don’t Forget Me,” from Pussy Cats, a soulful cut that Brass Bed makes thoroughly its own.
As an introduction to Harry Nilsson’s work, you would be far better served by actually picking up one of his records (Aerial Ballet or Nilsson Schmilsson preferably) and those interested in Brass Bed would be better served by checking out 2010’s excellent Melt White, the band’s best-realized amalgam of Elephant 6 experimentalism and pure McCartney pop to date. As for On Nilsson, it best serves as an introduction to the concept of a “filler EP” between noteworthy releases.