In the late '60s, no musician distilled and mirrored the ardent emotions of white, educated, urban teenagers better than Laura Nyro. Though Nyro was introduced to the world as a hit-making songwriter (the Fifth Dimension scored with "Wedding Bell Blues" and "Stoned Soul Picnic," and Streisand with "Stoney End"), her songs acquired their full heft only when she performed them.
Nyro's 1968 album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, released when she was only 20, was exhilarating. Its hyper-dramatic minisuites, including "Timer," "Emmie" and "Eli's Comin' " (all here), soared to climaxes that left Nyro's young fans convinced they'd seen heaven. Lionized in a 1970 LIFE profile, Nyro grew drunk on self-importance, swamping her craft with pretentiousness. She regained her balance in 71 with Gonna Take a Miracle, a tribute to early rock classics and a classic itself. And that was the end of Nyro as a major artist. Her audience split into a half-dozen "markets" (jazz fans, world-beat buffs, etc.); more to the point, the kids grew up, losing their adolescent romantic fervor. Nyro was stranded. Her music turned diffuse, tentative. Adopting a sort of ecological feminism, she kept an audience of graying counterculturoids. Marginal like them, she soldiered on.
No artist wants to admit her strongest material is 25 years in the past, so Nyro talked her label into including a bigger chunk of her recent work than deserves to be on a best-of set. While none of the newer songs are less than pleasant—and one, "To a Child," sparkles—Stoned Soul Picnic's second disc meanders. But its first glows, lit by six songs from Eli, one of the greatest albums from the brief era when music was a religion, a communal rite. (Columbia/Legacy)