Picks and Pans Review: Live at the Bottom Line

updated 12/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Laura Nyro

For a large part of the generation of thirtysomethings, this singer will probably always epitomize urban angst—loneliness, alienation, drugs, destructive relationships—circa 1970. In her heyday, Nyro wrote songs that were vivid in their images, compelling in their melodies. So what if her lyrics sometimes sounded like codes waiting to be cracked? She could turn a city scene into something edgy, ethereal and remarkably evocative. In a sense, Nyro was a graffiti artist long before those folks got government grants.

In retrospect, she and Joni Mitchell seem like poetic pioneers; finding a cult following in the male world of music, they trailblazed for such current chart darlings as Melissa Etheridge and Tracy Chapman.

This recording is Nyro's first in five years, and it's terrific. Yes, it contains such classic Nyro compositions as "And When I Die," "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues"—all of them huge hits when covered by mainstream performers such as the Fifth Dimension and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

But rest assured: This is no mothball marathon. In a year in which every 70s singer this side of Bobby Sherman has returned to manhandle a microphone, Nyro distinguishes herself with a comeback to care about. On this album, which Nyro co-produced, the arrangements are smoother, the delivery more relaxed and the voice remarkable. As Nyro tells her audience, she has quit smoking, which has cleansed her voice to advantage.

And this collection, recorded in the summer of 1988, contains several fresh songs that prove Nyro hasn't lost touch or lost her touch. The best new composition, "The Japanese Restaurant Song," chronicles with gleeful commentary a mother out to dinner with her offspring: "Just another nite/ A day in the life/ Just another foreign film/ In black and white." Its images are up-to-the-minute, its concerns no less topical than the pair of political songs she includes. For the faithful, the album concludes with a signature, sultry version of "Up on the Roof."

It's always nice to encounter an old friend after a long absence. To meet one who is in such extraordinary form is indeed a treat. If you've ever listened to New York Tendaberry, the classic album, in a tiny Manhattan apartment at 3 in the morning, this beaut's for you especially; but it should hold up for Nyro tyros too. (Cypress)

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