RANDY NEWMAN REVIEWS:
Randy Newman (1968)
Randy Newman (1968)
Album Score: 12
Randy Newman is more well-known today for his plethora of film soundtracks than his album recording career, which was underway with this self-titled 1968 debut. But, after listening to this album, it's incredibly easy to see why he eventually began writing music for movies: He likes to write music that's very cinematic in nature. Instead of the usual 12-bar stuff or weirdo psychedelia that everyone else was recording at the time, Newman seemed to prefer writing music that's more rambly in nature with extra emphasis on complex, full orchestral arrangements.
Naturally, Newman's famous as a piano player, and we get to hear some of that, also. There's also a little bit of guitar and drums. But the emphasis here is on the cinematic arrangements, which are very impressive indeed! Interestingly, he would abandon this style to produce more traditional singer-songwriter stuff in later albums. With that, comes a problem. Not all of these songs are 'catchy' in the way that most audiences would respond to. Nonetheless, this album is incredibly melodic, and it's still filled to the brim with his famous brand of lyrics, which range can be witty, morose, bittersweet and/or sweet. As far as singer-songwriters go, it doesn't get a whole lot better than Randy Newman.
He also comes off as so likable that you'll probably want him to join your family by the time the album's through. Sure, he gets depressed at times, but at least he's nice about it. He's not going to throw beer bottles at the wall. The album opens with the incredibly sweet “Love Story,” which is about a young man in love. The first lyrics are “I like your brother / I like your mother / I like you and you like me too”. The song begins with a light, simple piano before the fanciful string arrangements come in. The chorus brings in exciting, trembling violins with a heavy snare drum, which comes off as very cool. It must also be mentioned that these arrangements aren't just there to fill up space; they actually fit and accent the whirlwind of moods presented in the lyrics.
The Randy Newman that composed those sweet Pixar ditties will immediately recognize his style in “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad.” The lyrics are about a depressed guy, but the light guitar-and-piano led are oddly upbeat. Yes, he can make those sad times seem oddly bright! “So Long Dad” marks a return to the complex dramatic string arrangements, which do wonders to accent those utterly heartwarming lyrics. “Linda” is so beautiful and cinematic that I had to make sure that it wasn't, in fact, a part of a montage in a movie! At any rate, it should have been; it probably would have been a highlight of a film. Also featuring the heavy orchestral sections is “Laughing Boy” and “Davy the Fat Boy,” and both songs aren't so dramatic as they are richly comic.
Probably the most famous song in this album is “I Think It's Going to Rain Today,” which has been covered by a variety of artists including a surprisingly nice version by Bette Midler for the Beaches soundtrack. But I find it to be a bit too bleak and low-key quality, which for me, isn't trumped by the thoughtful lyrics. I also have the same problem with “Cowboy.” While it's terribly sentimental, I can't fight the feeling that it's rather dull. Then again, it's impossible to get too bored with considering they're three-minutes long. In fact, none of these songs are longer than three-and-a-half minutes.
Well, Randy Newman is awesome. What else can be said? If you didn't know that before, then you know it now. You seriously ought to listen to his albums! His albums aren't usually this heavily orchestrated, but these are terribly good orchestrations. If you want something more traditional, then I would listen to some of his other albums like Sail Away, but everyone eventually must hear this brilliant debut album!
Read the track reviews:
12 Songs (1970)
Album Score: 10
Randy Newman cannot tell a lie! His sophomore album is called 12 Songs, and I can personally verify that there are indeed 12 songs in it. There's nothing like good old Newman, dependable as ever.
Though you probably wouldn't think that if you've just come off of listening to his 1968 debut album, which was filled to the brim with classy and complicated string arrangements. This by far more of the typical Randy Newman album, one where he doesn't need much more than a piano, his voice, and a notebook full of thoughtful lyrics. Of course he uses other instruments like a guitar and drums, but they're only for frills.
He might not be the sort of person known to produce many hits, but this album contains the sorta well-known “Yellow Man.” It's not well-known specifically because the anti-racism lyrics could be thought-of as racist by idiots who don't understand satire, but the breezy piano combined with the old-fashioned Americana melody is genuinely catchy and memorable. I suppose that's the quintessential Randy Newman song, when it comes right down to it. It takes a passive stance on a tough political topic and manages to be thoroughly charming.
Another good one is “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” which puts his backing band to full use including a brilliant slide guitarist (who pops up in other highly opportune places). The mood is lighthearted and upbeat, which is what Newman is famous for, obviously, because that's what he does best. Nonetheless, he turns in a brilliant slow number, “Suzanne,” which is every bit as engaging as any of the fast ones here. He uses the lower register of his piano and mumbles the lyrics as though he was wise beyond his years.
Though not all of the slow-paced songs are as successful as that one. I'd say most of them are fairly unremarkable, and that is the album's principal downfall. A song like “Let's Burn Down the Cornfield” might be interesting to hear him do in theory, considering there's no piano on it, but it's ultimately a dull blues number. I like the minimal electric guitar and the noodly bass guitar, but overall song never gets out of that downbeat rut. A strikingly similar problem befalls “If You Need Oil,” which is not just depressing, but tedious. Come on, Nnnnewman. You can do better than that. Compared to those two, the slow-paced blues “Lucinda” and the quiet pop-rock ditty “Rosemary” are thoroughly exciting! But those still could have been injected with more melody and life.
But why did I talk about all the bad stuff before I was finished talking about the good stuff! The opening track “Have You Seen My Baby?” is a terribly fun boogie-woogie! While the tune itself isn't original to speak of, that very passive horn section keeping the chugging beat has Randy Newman's personality written all over it. “Old Kentucky Home” is a country-western song through and through. It doesn't give the genre anything new except for witty lyrics, which basically never happens in country music.
And I can't close this review before I mention the charming piano ballad “Underneath the Harlem Moon.” It might not be “Let it Be,” but it has some of the sweetest goshdurn lyrics I've ever heard, and the way he's able to perform them makes them sound much more genuine than they would reading them on paper. That's what a good singer is supposed to do! Too few people agree with that.
While I can't give 12 Songs my heartiest of recommendations, I'm still giving it a mild thumbs up. The good moments are easy to take to heart, and the lyrics are generally so good that I have no problem with calling them sheer poetry. (Although take that with a grain of salt since I never read poetry outside of a literature class.) There's nobody else out there like Randy Newman, and he's worth bearing through the tedious stuff. (But seriously, I'm glad he worked that out in his subsequent albums!)
Read the track reviews:
Randy Newman Live (1971)
Album Score: 10
His one-and-only official live release was originally a radio promo that was played in front of an audience so minuscule that you can make out most of their individual claps and voices. It was decidedly a casual affair as he frequently jokes around, and even asks for requests on occasion. It was such a lightweight affair that he didn't even bring a backing band with him—it's just him and his piano. That's not a terribly mind-bending concept since many of his songs were like that originally, but many of the heavily orchestrated songs from his eponymous debut and a few of the rock 'n' roll bits from 12 Songs have become radically bare bones here.
It's for that reason alone that many of his fans would want to pick this up. What a better way to have a more intimate relationship with some of these lyrics than to strip away all that distracting orchestration? But I think the average person would miss the orchestration. Let's face it: Randy Newman isn't the finest melody-writer on the planet, and the orchestrations helped matters most of the time. This is most apparent in the slower moving songs such as “Living Without You” and “I Think It's Going to Rain Today.” They weren't my cup of tea in their original incarnations, and they're even less exciting here. Hm.
If you're an Elton John fan, you're probably thinking about the very similar live album he released at the same time called 11-17-1970. Even though I'd say thicker orchestrations benefit many of John's songs, that disc showed a terribly exciting new side of him. When you think of Elton John, you think of some guy in a dopey costume playing a pretty ballad on the piano. But instead, 11-17-1970 showed him working up a sweat and playing the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. Randy Newman Live, on the other hand, doesn't show us any exciting new sides of Randy Newman, apart from a generally jokey demeanor. Naturally, he came to the concert armed with great piano skills, thought-provoking lyrics, and earnest vocal performances, but you can pretty much get that from the studio albums. And thus, this album is only essential for the fans. What's more, the running length is less than 30 minutes, and so it might not be cost-effective.
The one thing this album does give us is two songs that never appeared on any of his studio albums. Neither of them are mind-blowing, or anything, but as you could imagine they are sweet icing on the cake for fans. “Tickle Me” is a sweet and humorous song (surprise!) though the dramatic way that he rumbles those chords gives it an added dimension that I like. The other rarity is “Maybe I'm Doing it Wrong,” but that's a decidedly average song with a boring melody though nice lyrics.
Interestingly, there are also three songs here that hadn't yet appeared in his studio albums. Two of them, “Last Night I Had a Dream” and “Lonely at the Top” were going to be included in Sail Away, released a year later. The other one, “I'll Be Home” wouldn't be recorded until 1977. Again, that simple fact alone probably isn't going to interest you unless you're a Newman-phile. What matters is “Last Night I Had a Dream” is a phenomenally engaging song with one of his more memorable melodies and “Lonely At the Top” is also a very good tune. I'm not such a huge fan of that bleak “I'll Be Home,” but he'll liven it up slightly in 1977 with cinematic orchestraion.
The highlight of the whole album is without a doubt “Yellow Man,” which is my favorite song of his previous two albums. Sure, this version doesn't have the light horn section or the drums, but it was basically a piano-centrist song to begin with. Obviously, those ironic lyrics were prone to controversy, and he had to preface the song with his interpretation of what it means. “This is kind of a pin-head's version of China...,” he says. Yup, it's not rocket science, but it's best to be safe when you're on the public airwaves!
While Randy Newman Live isn't anything I'm heartily recommending to anyone other than his fans, I will say that this is a valuable album in the historic sense. It's the only recording officially available of his live performances, and it was nice to experience these stripped-down presentations of his lyrics.
Read the track reviews:
Sail Away (1972)
Album Score: 13
Newman's two earlier studio albums had plenty of excellent moments, for sure, but this is where he finally came into full bloom. Sail Away is chock-full of splendid melodies, thoughtful lyrics and some of the sincerest singing that you'll ever hear in an album. There is not a single moment here that drags at all. Everything is a gem. What's more, he does a nice job keeping this experience diverse, touching upon a variety of American styles while sounding utterly laid-back and low-key. This is a special sort of album, and among the best of its kind.
I've had plenty of positive words to say about his lyrics in the past, but even those seem to be getting better. You know it's an occasion that I'd mention lyrics at all in a review, since I usually just concentrate on the melody and instrumentation. But it's impossible to listen to one of his albums without paying close attention to what he has to say ... and it's always interesting. There are lyrical matters that range from hopeful to sorrowful, from serious to sarcastic.
He opens the album with the title track, a Randy Newman classic if there ever was one. It's a laid-back ballad piano ballad with gentle albeit sweeping string arrangements and tongue-in-cheek lyrics about poor foreigner's views of America. If that was a little too smooth for your taste, he follows it up with a crunchier ragtime number, “Lonely at the Top.” Obviously, Newman was in love with the Americana sound of The Band, but Newman's treatment of the material is far less flashy.
He seems to pay homage to Ray Davies in “Dayton Ohio, 1903,” a sweetly nostalgic song recalling the simpler times of the past. “Old Man” is my vote for the most thoroughly moving song of the album. It's low-key and depressing, but these lyrics about an old man dying alone unloved is bound to tug at the heartstrings of even the most cynical. “Memo to My Son” is also thoroughly moving but in a far more lighthearted way. It's an upbeat ode from a father to his infant son. Catchy tune, too! It almost makes me want to have children just so I could put that on a mix tape for myself.
Despite his enormously successful “serious” songs, it's those bitingly sarcastic humor ditties that Newman is best-known for. And there are a few doozies here. “Political Science” is a knee-slappingly hilarious song about a politician who gets the idea to bomb every country and turn them into America. The world would be a better place, right? “You Can Leave Your Hat” is apparently about a man infatuated with a stripper, and it's fully complemented by a horn section that sounds seedy and yet it doesn't betray the laid-back nature of the rest of the album.
He also gets a little religious in spots, and it's not immediately clear if he was being serious or tongue-in-cheek. But that's part of the appeal! “He Gives Us All His Love” is a sensitive piano ballad about the loving nature of God. But “God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)” is more about the topsy-turvy relationship God and mankind had throughout the Old Testament.
By far the best thing about Sail Away is that it gets better with repeated listens. As I've mentioned throughout the track reviews, he doesn't write instantly catchy melodies like Paul McCartney. Most of these will take some time to sink in. And considering these lyrics are so interesting, and Newman's vocals are consistently charming, you'll almost certainly want to give it that time.
I sometimes pretend I don't like making grand, sweeping generalizations about a genre of music, but I always do anyway... The early '70s was the era of the singer-songwriter, but this album so thoroughly encompasses that spirit that topping this is basically unsurmountable by any other artist. If that was too much of a fan-boy's generalization, then at least nobody can deny this: Nobody was better at being Randy Newman than Randy Newman. And Randy Newman albums are more wholesome than chicken soup. I don't say that about everything, you know.
Read the track reviews:
Good Old Boys (1974)
Album Score: 13
Yup, critics are torn between whether this album or Sail Away represents the pinnacle of Randy Newman's career. I'm an indecisive bastard, and I can't really make up my mind. On one hand, the lyrics of Sail Away are a little more personal and moving while the lyrics of Good Old Boys concentrates more on places and politics. On the other hand, I'd say the melodies on Good Old Boys are catchier for the most part and the instrumentation is bolder. So I suppose it depends on what you like. And anyway, this is pretty much a moot argument since the most logical solution is to just get both albums.
Newman opens the album with one of his most most famous tunes, “Rednecks,” one of those irony-filled songs that a lot of people don't get. If you don't read too carefully into the lyrics, you'll think it's a scathing attack on Southerners (as I did in my original review). But really, it's an attack on Northerners who look down on their Confederate brethren. If you don't wish to read the lyrics at all, then that's OK too because you can enjoy the toe-tapping instrumentation! It's a very piano-centrist song, as you'd expect, but there's a thumpin' bass guitar, jazzy woodwinds, and a little bit of a country-western flavor for good measure. Indeed, this is just an all-around good song.
The next track is called “Birmingham,” and he's not talking about England. The Southern themes are strewn all throughout this record! It is a pleasant song that looks at life there though rose-colored glasses, even fondly recalling the hardships. The Americana instrumentation makes it even more endearing in my mind. “Marie” is a romantic song with beautiful string arrangements and remarkably solid hooks. People who know Newman's discography well probably think I'm making quizzical picks, but right now this is my favorite song on Good Old Boys. It's slowly paced, but this one gives me a lump in my throat.
“Guilty” is also a romantic song, but it's more about how drug addiction got in the way of things. I'd also say that song has some of the most brilliant Americana instrumentation on the album, creating a semi-dreary atmosphere fitting the subject matter but it never, for a moment, grows mind-numbing. Some of the most overtly political songs here include “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” apparently an attack on Nixon, while “Kingfish” is a celebration of the ill-fated governor of Louisiana Huey P. Long. Newman even performs a short song that Long had co-penned for one of his campaigns, “Every Man Has a King.” Interesting!
Musically, the most distinctive song of the album is “Naked Man,”which has a bit of a tropical vibe. If Jimmy Buffet didn't cover that song, then he should have since it's right up his alley. Perhaps the lyrics are a little too cryptic for Buffet, but so what? Come to think of it, I'm not sure what the cheeseburger was doing in paradise. “Back on My Feet Again” is probably the album's most blatant country-western tune, and it blows away all those Toby Keith Urban Cowboy songs I hear all the time in public restrooms. Not that it was hard! Newman's catchy, bouncy melody is complimented by a light slide guitar in the background. It's the sort of song that even us city-folk can love.
Newman decides to close the album with one of its more laid-back songs, one that makes me want to sit on a Louisiana porch and sipping lemonade (or maybe a mint julep out of respect for the doctor). The lyrics also seem to be optimistic, but this is one of those cases where I'm not sure if he's being facetious or not! Sometimes it's hard to tell with Randy Newman! As I've said before, that's one of the reasons he's so interesting.
When you get into these peak-career Randy Newman albums, you will note how freaking awesome this guy is. Not only are his lyrics clever and extremely thoughtful, but every single one of these songs are laden with good vocal hooks. The distinctly American flavor of these songs is also one of the things that makes this album so treasurable. On a personal note, I'm an American, but I spend most of my time listening to British musicians or American musicians pretending to be British. As you probably noted throughout my reviews, I hold some contempt for country-western music... Well, Randy Newman's an American, too, and he has given me a fresh perspective of my homeland. I will always have him to thank for that.
Read the track reviews:
Little Criminals (1977)
Album Score: 11
This might have Randy Newman's greatest hit on it, “Short People,” but unfortunately it also contains a fair amount of weak material that makes it a sizable step down from the overall greatness of Sail Away and Good Old Boys. It's not only the melodies that are weaker, but it's the overall impression I get from listening to the album. It just fails to sink into my “soul” like his other albums have so easily been able to do. Nonetheless, it remains a Randy Newman album, and there's always value in that.
Let's talk about “Short People,” because that's clearly the best song of the album. It was considered hugely controversial when it was released because people read the lyrics at face-value and thought Randy Newman genuinely hated the vertically challenged. But of course that's not what it's about. I don't think even insane people can claim to hate short people. Instead that's an anti-bigotry song. The lyrics contain a list of all the shortcomings of short people, and the listener is supposed to think that's ridiculous and apply it to the notion that all bigotry is ridiculous. I know, clever right?
But a lot of people didn't get it. I watched an old news clip on YouTube of self-proclaimed short people at an anti-Newman rally angrily throwing eggs at a poster of his face. Yeesh!! On the other hand, I suppose that “Short People” was his first exposure to a wider audience, and the average person didn't know what Newman was all about. Yup, all his albums are full of ironic humor like that. So, it was a misunderstanding. Personally if I was short, and I thought Newman was dogging on me, I would have wanted to know more about what I was wasting tomorrow morning's omelet on. But that's just me. Plus, it was the '70s, and people used to do those kinds of things.
It's funny that song became such a huge hit, eventually hitting #2 on the American charts. It's a relatively simple, bouncy piece of piano-pop that's not radically different from his earlier compositions. The reason it became a hit is probably because the vocal melody is so freaking catchy that I'm sure you'll be whistling to it in no time. Certainly helping its radio-friendliness, however, is the instrumentation that sounds considerably more contemporary and 'radio-friendly' than his previous songs, so maybe he was trying for a hit on purpose! Hm! Anyway, that's a really catchy and thoughtful song, and I'm glad that a lot of people love it.
“Baltimore” also seems like he might have been purposefully trying for a big radio hit, especially with that chorus that sounds directly out of a Crosby, Stills & Nash album. That's a decent song, for sure, with a nice piano texture and a nice melody if a bit repetitive, but it truly fails to capture my attention. And the fact that it sounds radio-friendly just makes it less automatically endearing than anything from his back catalogue. It just seems less rugged and authentic.
But radio-friendliness isn't actually a big problem. By far the biggest problem with Little Criminals is the overly repetitive melodies. “You Can't Fool the Fat Man” has all the instrumental and vocal charm that all Randy Newman songs have, but the melody basically consists of a single repeated line over and over, and it loses its power every time it's repeated. The title track not only has that problem, but its louder, rock-centered and almost dreary instrumentation seems to weigh it down detrimentally. It just doesn't take off.
“Jolly Choppers on Parade” comes up with a nice atmosphere and a good hook, but again its melody seems too simple, and I wish he would have worked a little more on developing it. “Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America” is probably the cleverest song of the album slyly working in the German National Anthem and “White Christmas.” Those additions were not expected though surprisingly appropriate given their context within the song. “Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easier)” is actually a decent bluesish song, but the instrumentation seemed very misfired, again sounding more dreary than gritty as it should have been.
Without a doubt, Little Criminals is not his best album, but I'd say the amount of variety on it still puts it a notch above his 1970 album 12 Songs even though the quality of the songwriting is just about the same. Unfortunately, it is nowhere near as melodically enriched and endearing as his previous two albums, which I'm sure is a disappointment for many. Nonetheless, this is a good album, and it has the song “Short People” on it. I don't think anyone could possibly dislike an album with “Short People” on it.
Read the track reviews:
Born Again (1979)
Album Score: 12
As I was driving from Seattle to Pullman the other day, I happened to pass by a herd of sheep. I thought that was weird, because I've gone back and forth between Seattle and Pullman at least a dozen times by now, and I don't remember ever seeing sheep. Naturally, sheep are cute, so I took my eyes off the road briefly to see what sorts of shenanigans they were up to. I noticed that a sheep nearby me was black, and that immediately made me think of this Randy Newman album I was about to review. Not only is the album cover extremely *black*, but the music contained within is unlike any Randy Newman that has ever been or will ever come. In fact, Born Again is so uncharacteristic of him that, if he didn't have such a distinctive singing voice, you might even question whether Newman was behind this at all... Judging by the face paint, Newman himself might not have believed he was behind it. (I guess Kiss didn't need a piano player.)
I wonder if he knew that Little Criminals was a bit pale, and he decided to use Born Again as a chance to explore new musical horizons. Probably. What's more, I'm usually thrilled to hear what an artist sounds like trying to step out of his comfort zone. Since Randy Newman is such a talented singer-songwriter, it's especially interesting to hear what odd things he would come up with in this “experiment.” Not everything on here is a success story, but let me tell you right now that there are some verrrry enjoyable moments!
The greatest song in the history of the planet is called “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band,” and you'll find it right here on this album! (OK, it might not actually be the greatest song on the planet, but I like it lots, I do.) It's an ELO parody, of all things, and he uses their trademark heavy-orchestral arrangements but in a much more comical fashion. Every little thing he adds to the mix, from those off-kilter strings to that goofy operatic passage, is pure gold.
That brings up another topic that must be discussed. The lyrics! If you thought writing a song about ELO was a weird for Randy Newman, wait 'til you hear some of these other tracks! “Mr. Sheep” has snarling and vicious lyrics about a businessman who follows the crowd, and the instrumentation and the play-acting vocal performance sounds like it's on helium. I get a Clockwork Orange vibe from that! Another song with random lyrical content is “Spies,” a mildly entertaining electronic song about all sorts of spies around the world. “Pants” is about Randy Newman declaring that he is going to take off his pants and nobody's gonna stop him. (Hah!)
Those songs might not be among Newman's finest moments, but I still find them to be a refreshing change-of-pace. Nonetheless, listeners who were hoping for Newman to adopt more warmhearted lyrical matter have a few nice things to treasure here. With his traditional light jazzy piano arrangement, “The Girls in My Life, Part 1” is a touching first-person narrative that lists brief details about some of the romantic relationships (big and small) in his life. “Ghosts” also has memorable lyrics about an old man who is dying with regrets.
“Half of Man” is a minor masterpiece. Not only is the melody about as catchy as “Short People,” but the complex instrumentation shows him at the top of his game. At times, it sounds like he was writing it directly for the radio (particularly that synth-heavy chorus), but before you know it, he's wandered into a village somewhere in Spain. I'm not kidding, either... right after that synth-heavy chorus, it seems to naturally weave into a section with sweet strings and light Latin horns. “It's Money That I Love,” the catchy album opener, is also one of the more memorable moments of the album, attacking those who lust after the almighty dollar.
Like black sheep albums Her Satanic Majesties Request and Magical Mystery Tour before it, most critics tend to degrade them unfairly. They raise the point I did about these uncharacteristic lyrics, but they don't pay enough attention to the fact that there are some really fine melodies here, and these sometimes fascinating song arrangements. True, Born Again might not be something you would expect him or probably even want him to do. But just like he was determined to take off his pants, he does it anyway! The end result is an interesting, diverse album that's filled with some terribly delightful moments. The rating was a possible 11, but the creativity bumped it to a weak-12. Recommended!
Read the track reviews:
Trouble in Paradise (1983)
Album Score: 10
Film composer! Randy Newman had completed his first full movie score in 1981 for the high-profile movie Ragtime starring Samuel L. Jackson, and it was the first of many soundtracks he would compose through the years. BUT! He wasn't quite ready to give up on his pop albums. Four years after the release of Randy Newman's offbeat Born Again, he returns with a similarly offbeat album, Trouble in Paradise. While it has its fair share of delightful moments, it unfortunately lacks the sheer inventiveness of Born Again. But it's still a good album. This is Randy Newman, lest you forget.
Anything with a song like “I Love L.A.” on it is good in my book. It starts out deceptively like a lounge-piano version of some sort of Christmas carol, but it quickly turns into an upbeat dance song about good old Lala land. Just like every Randy Newman song should be, it's catchy as all heck, and the lyrics are funny though somehow genuine. The instrumentation is nothing spectacular, but he creates a nice mix of rhythm guitars, buzzy synthesizers and rockin' pianos. The best thing, of course, is his spirited vocal performance. You can't get those vocals from his movie soundtracks; that's for sure! ...Except for Toy Story. And he was the burning bush in The Three Amigos. Maybe there were some others. I've probably seen most of them, but I don't have a photographic memory.
You'll also notice that he's embracing a lot of popular trend, and he does a very nice job with that for the most part. “The Blues” has an '80s soft-pop quality to it, but the melody is excellent, so who cares if it's so cheesy that it would excite every mouse within a 10-mile radius of your speakers? He tries out some ska textures in “Take Me Back,” and that's a really fun experience! Sure, it's not as serious as The Police, and that electric organ-tone is hella '80s, but he's having fun with it. So, I have no choice but to have fun, too.
Probably the weirdest, most delightful song in the whole album is “My Life is Good.” Just listening to how it develops is a bizarre experience. It starts out like he's about to sing another fruity Christmas carol, but it quickly turns into a seedier, harder, jazzier tune where he uses the word “ass.” Then, out of freaking nowhere, one of the most amazing pop-rock choruses ever written pops up... I mean, musically this chorus has nothing to do with anything else in the song, and it's like he just smacked you in the face with it. But it's good! Wow. And then it leaves just as unexpectedly as it came... And the song doesn't relent in its peculiarity after that, if you listen to the lyrics where he has a hilarious encounter with Bruce Springsteen. Yes indeed; this song is one freak-of-nature!
“Mikey's” is also a freak of nature, an experiment with synth-pop. Sure, it probably sounded unusual for 1983, but I swear it sounds a lot like something from a Super Nintendo soundtrack. Compositionally, the song is pretty bad... It consists of a single groove while Newman screams over it. But I'll give it extra points for being quirky. Also quirky is “I'm Different,” which sounds like a '50s children's music parody. It's not as insanely delightful as it should have been, but it ain't bad. “Christmas in Capetown” is also weird, but not so much in the good way this time. It's very angry, and I don't find the melody redemptive enough.
So, after all of this, you might be wondering if Trouble in Paradise has any *regular* Randy Newman tunes. You know, like the piano music that he's most famous for. Yeah, this album has summa that, namely “Same Girl” and “Real Emotional Girl.” They're both very pretty songs, but they're snooze-fests. The atmospheres are bleak, the melodies are forgettable, and the lyrics aren't even that moving. Meh! That said, the piano-centered “Song For the Dead” has a more notable melody and more interesting lyrics, but I still don't have a great interest in hearing such down-beat songs much more in my too-short life. Whatever happened to those bouncy piano songs? I like those!!
In the end, there are enough interesting moments in this album if you're at all interested in Randy Newman albums. It's definitely not for the casual fan. It's the weaker sibling of Born Again, so I'd only get this if you're a fan of that album like I am! But I was pretty weird for liking that album, so you probably shouldn't even listen to what I've been saying about it. Really. Don't listen to me.
Read the track reviews:
Land of Dreams (1988)
Album Score: 12
It took him five long years after Trouble in Paradise to finally release this follow-up. He wasn't being lazy or anything; he was enjoying his new career as a full-time movie soundtrack composer. One movie he worked on was that one about Robert Redford hitting baseballs. Hey, I like that movie! And, from what I remember, it had good music on it! (I'll tell you right now that I'm not going to review any of his movie soundtracks. While I admit it would be terribly fun reviewing Steve Martin and Martin Short performing “My Little Buttercup,” I decided that wouldn't be the best use of my time. ...as far as reviewing music on this website is a good use of my time goes.)
If you thought five years was an ungodly lull period, you ain't seen nothing yet. It wouldn't be until 1999 that he'd release a proper follow-up to this. There was a musical that he wrote and performed in, but that's not a proper pop album, is it? Pop albums were reduced to things he would work on intermittently in between movie soundtracks. Speaking as someone who likes listening to his pop albums, I'm sorta sad. Hm. Well. I shouldn't mope. Let us enjoy these Randy Newman pop albums while we can!
It opens with “Dixie Flyer,” a beautiful piano centered ballad with sentimental lyrics, a gorgeous melody, and a tiny bit of slide guitar in the background. That's followed-up with the warm-hearted nostalgic ballad “New Orleans Won the War” with jazzy undertones. Ah! You know what that means? He's returned to writing songs that he used to write in the early '70s. And guess what? These songs are just as good as anything he ever wrote. Why, it's like he never left! Listening to those are like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers that you haven't worn in awhile. Ahhhh.... But don't expect to keep them on for too long.
Randy Newman raps on this album. It's called “Masterman and Baby J.” Don't look at the screen with your mouth hanging open; it's quite a lot of fun! The lyrics are hilarious, and I'd wager that he raps with as much spirit as he sings his ballads. Surely, the only reason he did this was just because he could, and what can I say? I have about as much fun listening to it as he appears to have had fun performing it. Bravo!
He gives Caribbean music a try with “Falling in Love,” and it turned out to be one of the most memorable moments in this album. The riff sounds very cliché for the genre, but just like Randy Newman always does, he makes the song seem much more than that. Naturally, that's thanks to his sincere vocal delivery and these charmingly romantic and optimistic lyrics. “Follow the Flag” is an engaging ballad about patriotism. (Although with that one, just like so many of his songs, it's hard to figure out exactly where his tongue is in relation to his cheek, if you catch my drift!) It's a gorgeous song, anyway.
I'd have to say the real masterpiece of this album is the John-Lennon-esque closing ballad “I Want to Hurt You Like I Do.” I have to admit that the opening chords on that soft-pop organ and the '80s-sounding drums are a bit of a turn-off... but once I was willing to give it my undivided attention, it paid off in ways that I would never have believed. The melody is rich and captivating. The lyrics surely are some of the most touching that Newman's ever written, about a man who emotionally hurts his family and probably doesn't want to. That's a real gem, and you should listen to it!
In my original review of this album, I expressed my wholehearted love for a John-Couger-Mellencamp-esque power ballad called “It's Money That Matters.” I listened to it over and over to try to figure out what I originally saw in it. I couldn't find it again. The polished guitar riff is pretty good and the melody is decent, but as far as songs have been going on this album, it's mostly shrug-worthy. (Of course, I'd rather listen to that than John Cougar Smellycamp any day of the week!)
The dramatic “Four Eyes” is reminiscent of his synth-pop experiments in his previous two albums. It's a fine song, but hearing him sound so angry there is sort of a hard pill to swallow after he just finished charming the pants off of us in earlier songs. “Red Bandana” is also oddly structured. I don't find the melody to be as enticing as it probably could have been, but at least it's not so cold.
So that concludes another Randy Newman review, one that I had a lot of fun writing! The score was somewhere between an 11 and a 12, but I opted for the higher rating thanks to the fun diversity and the fact that “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do” is one of the best songs ever written.
Read the track reviews:
Album Score: 10
I hate to start off a Randy Newman review talking about something negative, because this guy's music has been so good to me that I don't ever want to say anything bad about his work. But it's gotta be said.
I don't think Faust is such a good musical. I've listened to plenty of musical soundtracks in the past ... for years, in fact, musicals were all I ever listened to ... and this one pales. Naturally, we can't get too carried away with the criticism. Newman was a novice in the art, after all, and he was being humble about it. He gave it a good try, and there are a handful of excellent pieces here. But, overall, this thing just doesn't compel me as it should.
Let's talk about the cast. There's James Taylor (God), Don Henley (Faust), Linda Ronstadt (the good girl), Bonnie Raitt (the bad girl), Elton John (Angel Rick), and Randy Newman himself (the Devil). Taylor makes a boring God, but Newman always had a bit of a devilish tone in his voice, so he's very appropriate! Ronstadt is only given 'touching' Broadway arias to sing, and Raitt does an undistinguished job with the jazzier songs she has. Elton John is Elton John, of course. The big surprise of the lot is Henley, whose Faust sounds surprisingly tortured and dramatic! For some reason, I really like him in this.
It all starts with a very hooky gospel number, “Glory Train,” the first half of which is led by James Taylor and a bunch of angels. The vocal performance is lifeless, but the melody is good! Randy Newman's much more vibrant devil takes over the second half, and the song gets soooo much better. It goes to prove my earlier conjectures that Randy Newman is at his best when he sounds like Randy Newman! (And, indeed, his music is better when it's him who's singing it!)
“Can't Keep a Good Man Down” and “Best Little Girl” are also very Randy-Newman-ish and therefore constitute more of the album's ultimate highlights. I'd even go so far as to love the absolutely fun and swingin' “Life Has Been Good To Me” even though Raitt's vocal performance isn't as personality-ridden as Newman probably would have given it. However, not all of the light, breezy songs are so great. Especially toward the end when relatively boring songs like “Bleeding All Over the Place” begin to pop up. The hooks slowly become less compelling, and the songwriting doesn't have much of a sparkle. I love Elton John's singing voice in “Little Angel,” but that stuffy melody isn't any better than the sort of things John himself was writing at the time. Meeeeeh.
Probably the worst bits are when Linda Ronstadt frequently pops up to deliver these 'soulful' arias. She has a pretty voice, and I think the song “My Hero” is quite good, but Newman was clearly biting off more than he could chew with those. He's imitating the style of a typical Broadway aria, but didn't seem to completely understand what makes them tick. Compare them to the great arias written by Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber! ... These aren't even close. At the very least, I would have expected Newman to come up with a few devastating hooks for them, but these are mostly dry. Shame.
Despite my rather negative assessment of this, I found the overall experience of listening to this entertaining. I might have been mediocre as a musical, but I found occasion to tap my foot plenty 'o times throughout this album! There are enough good songs in here to make it a worthy addition to your Randy Newman collection if you like him as much as you should. Just be warned that I have a feeling you'll be pressing the skip button rather frequently.
There is a deluxe edition of this CD, which contains demos of Newman singing most these songs himself to just a piano! I've got an inkling most of his longtime fans would just assume hearing those rough cuts than these more polished numbers. I only listened to a few of them, but indeed, there's something more compelling about some of these songs when they're in their more rugged forms.
Read the track reviews:
Bad Love (1999)
Album Score: 12
Randy Newman might not have been releasing pop albums very much anymore, but every time he did, it was worth the wait. This was his first proper studio release in 11 years, and anyone who had actually been waiting all that time I'm sure came back from the record store as satisfied as can be. Bad Love is a Randy Newman album, with exactly the type of songs and the quality of songwriting that he always had.
There are two main differences between Bad Love and his albums from the '70s. The first one is technology has improved and/or he had a decently large budget for this—his orchestral arrangements sound crisper, cleaner and more polished than ever. He even employed a small army of female back-up singers for some of these songs! The second difference is Randy Newman himself had aged considerably, and he sounds more like an old windbag than ever before. ...That's mostly a good thing, though, because he pretty much sounded like an old windbag when he was in his '20s, so now he's more authentic! I mean, I can just guess how thrilled he was to finally get to the place where he could morph into the state he's in on that album cover!
Sometimes polished instrumentation gives me the willies. Usually, I'd say, things sound better in a more rough and raw state. How could I be such a Bob Dylan fan, otherwise? But in this case, Newman's orchestrations are lovely. He had spent most of the previous two decades composing movie soundtracks, and I'd imagine he put some of the tricks he learned through those years to good use. These songs are beautiful; the orchestral arrangements are lovely and always tasteful. If you read my earlier comment about the female back-up singers and rolled your eyes at it, I think you won't mind them so much since they pop up only when they're needed to add a little verve or beauty to the proceedings. They also add a little humor in “Shame,” where at a few points an increasingly pissed-off Randy Newman screams at them to shut up! And they do!! (HILARIOUS!!!) Indeed, this album has plenty of humorous, tongue-in-cheek moments that are just as potent as anything he'd ever done.
But interspersed in there are some gorgeous, serious ballads. One of them is called “Every Time it Rains,” and it is my favorite song here. I'd go so far as to say it's even one of my favorite songs of all Randy Newman's career. The melody is beautiful, and so is his emotion-filled vocal performance. Do I need to say anything else? “I Miss You” is another bittersweet piano ballad that you shouldn't live much more of your life without hearing. Why doesn't everyone in the world have these albums memorized? One of the most beautiful songs here is the nostalgic “My Country,” which opens the album. It captivates me right from the beginning with the genuinely engaging quality of his voice and the catchy vocal melody. But the orchestration gradually gets more dynamic as it reaches the end, and it takes my senses on quite a big ride!
He's usually good for at least one oddball composition in each album, and this album's oddball composition is “I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It).” It begins as a grunge song of all things, with a muddled riff played by an ultra-fuzzy guitar! Well, he doesn't have much of a voice for grunge, so comparisons to that genre are pretty much limited to the guitar. He seems to forget it was a grunge song with that bizarre but entertaining interlude in the middle. This is a mightily creative composition, and it's nice to know that he still liked to reach out and try new things!
The diversity on this album extends to other genres such as '30s nightclub music (“Better Off Dead”), country-western (“Big Hat No Cattle”), and European anthem music (“ The Great Nations of Europe”). Although we've heard him do these sorts of songs before. “Better Off Dead” is a real joy to listen to, though, which invites you to sit back and soak up its light shuffly rhythm and breezy vocal melody. The ending track is a lighthearted jazz song, “I Want Everyone to Like Me,” and that was a good pick to end the album, I think.
So, Bad Love is an excellent work that presents just the right mix of serious songs to humor songs. As a whole, the melodies are catchy and memorable, and it's always nice to hear Newman's singing voice. If you agree that Randy Newman is awesome, then you'll like this album. If you don't agree that Randy Newman is awesome, then you have problems and you should see a therapist or something.
Read the track reviews:
Songbook Vol. 1 (2003)
Album Score: 11
In 1971, Randy Newman released his one and only live album, appropriately called Live, which featured stripped-down versions of some of his old songs. In 2003, Randy Newman released an album with exactly the same idea, except it wasn't done live. Since you have a photographic memory and you read every single word that I ever write, you probably remember that I said Live gave his audience the value opportunity of hearing him perform his songs more intimately. That still holds true; he seems a little more like a real person when he's singing these songs without that distracting orchestration. But I also said that Newman was always so good at his arrangements that the songs tend to feel slightly empty without them. That's still true as well.
The other main difference between the albums is Randy Newman's voice, which is decidedly huskier and more lethargic than it used to be. In a way, his aged chops make him sound more world-worn—a little more like he had actually *lived* enough to earn the right to sing these touching songs about love and disappointment. On the other hand, when I compare these vocal performances to the originals, it's clear that he had tried much harder in the original versions. Songbook Vol. 1 is what Newman probably sounds like any average day he sits at a piano to brush up on his old material. It's professional though not very polished, and maybe he's just a *little bit* bored with it. That sort of limits Songbook Vol. 1 strictly to die-hard Randy Newman fans who would like to hear what Newman sounds like 'naked.'
It should be mentioned that “Short People” isn't on this! It was the man's biggest hit by far, and he didn't bring it out for this “Songbook!” His second-most famous song is probably the Toy Story theme, and that's not here either. However, he does give us a brief piano rendition of “When She Loved Me,” that sentimental montage music from Toy Story 2. In fact, there's not much here in terms of his lighthearted songs; he seemed to concentrate mostly on his sentimental piano ballads! Well, he does pull out his striptease song “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” delivering a much seedier vocal performance than he was ever able to when he was younger... For that reason, that's also the only song that I think displayed a significant improvement over the original.
The only song that I hadn't heard before was “Let Me Go,” which Newman had apparently written back in the '60s when he was a songwriter-for-hire. It's a very Randy-Newman-ish song, which means you should definitely hear it if you haven't already. (There's also a version of him singing a demo of it in a compilation called Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman.) My favorite song of the whole album is “Marie,” originally from Good Old Boys. Listening to that exceptionally beautiful piano ballad once again reminds me of how much I love it! More people should love it, too! I don't think enough people really know about that song...
The only piece he pulled from my favorite black sheep album, Born Again, is the excellent “It's Money That I Love.” He doesn't sound quite as vibrant as he did in the original version, but that's only because he's not wearing face-paint! The only representative from Little Criminals is the slowly paced and thoughtful “In Germany Before the War.” It's not my favorite song from that album, but it's still quite pretty. There's absolutely nothing from Trouble in Paradise or Land of Dreams, which means that apart from a tiny excerpt from the soundtrack of Ragtime, he completely snubbed his '80s career! I guess he, just like everyone else in the world, is still trying to forget that there was music in that decade. He also completely left out 12 Songs even though most of them probably would have fit well here. However, he does perform a couple ditties from his latest album Bad Love, although I personally don't think “The World Isn't Fair” and “Great Nations of Europe” were the best choices.
Songbook Vol. 1 makes a good listen, but I don't think I'd ever want to listen to it when I could just as easily pull out the original studio albums. That said, I'm not the only person in the world, and I understand that there are people who like to listen to the simpler, more casual sounds of some old guy singing with a piano. And, if you're one of these people, then who better are you going to find to listen to than Randy Newman? His melodies are tops, his lyrics are thoughtful, and I like his voice. The end.
Read the track reviews:
Harps and Angels (2008)
Album Score: 13
Randy Newman really liked to take his time coming out with new albums, but every time he finally released one, it was always worth the wait. Particularly Harps and Angels, which I'm certain ranks among the best albums he has ever done. It takes a lot for me to say such a thing since pretty much everything this man ever released ranks as 'great' or 'near-great' ... if not either of those things, then at least 'quite good.'
Newman hadn't changed one bit since we last saw him. As a matter of fact, he hadn't changed since the early '70s. You probably already know what this album consists of: jazz-pop and piano ballads. More often than not, I tend to complain whenever artists continue to recycle their own ideas. I've done that on a number of occasions. But not Randy Newman. Even though all of this material could very well have been recorded in the '70s, it sounds as fresh as ever. The melodies are catchy, the instrumentation is masterfully done, Newman's vocals are playful and fun, and the lyrics are 100 percent interesting. So, Harps and Angels fits in extremely well with his back-catalogue. I also happen to think that the melodies, instrumentation, vocals and lyrics are more exceptionally solid than usual here. I mean, there's not a single moment that even threatens to get boring. In the track reviews, everything scored an A- or higher. Indeed, Harps and Angels is as good as one of his greatest hits compilations.
Newman's had always decided to take cynical, political overtones with his work, but I can't remember him ever being as blunt as he is in “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.” It starts out with very humorous and cynical words about empires ending throughout history, but then it grows rather sobering at the end. (“And what are we supposed to be afraid of? / Why, of being afraid / That's what terror means, doesn't it? / That's what it used to mean.”) These of course take on the Bush era head-on, an era that just ended 11 days before I reviewed this... Those are very bold words, and I can only hope that this song will be considered out-of-date verrrrrry soon.
But if you're like how I am normally, I prefer to listen to albums not for the lyrics, but for the MUSIC. That's right, that song also has a great melody, a fact that some music reviewers forget to mention. The country-western instrumentation is as sweet and breezy as it gets. Don't you just love it when Randy Newman is so (misleadingly) sweet and breezy? “Korean Parents” must rank up there with “Yellow Man,” “Short People” and “Rednecks” as a song with the extreme potential of pissing people off. But it's almost easy to miss those hilariously sarcastic lyrics because the melody is so goshdurned catchy. “A Piece of the Pie” is the album's token odd-ball song. He's had at least one quirky song per album ever since Born Again, which was full of odd-ball songs! Come to think of it, this song rather strongly resembles “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band,” and it's just as delightful.
The focus of this album is overwhelmingly on lighthearted, delightful jazz-pop. Let's count 'em. “Harps and Angels,” “Laughing and Be Happy,” “Easy Street,” “Korean Parents,” “Only a Girl,” and “Potholes.” That's six out of ten. “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is country-western, and “A Piece of the Pie” is the black sheep. That leaves “Losing You” and “Feels Like Home” as the album's only piano ballads. That's a surprisingly low number for a Randy Newman album! But come to think of it I tend to get bored if his albums have too many ballads, so I reckon that was just the right number. I should also mention that these ballads are awesome. He puts his cynicism aside for the extremely heartwarming and tuneful “Feels Like You,” a simple song about a man coming home to his wife for the first time in awhile. It's sweet and pretty; it's all you could possibly ask for in a Randy Newman ballad. The string heavy “Losing You” resembles something out of his debut, and it's also quite splendid.
In case you didn't get the impression yet, I give Randy Newman's Harps and Angels my heartiest of endorsements. If you like Randy Newman, then you'll think this album is the cat's meow. If you don't like Randy Newman, then there's something wrong with you. Seriously. That's not the first time I said that, but that only goes to show the seriousness of your predicament.
Read the track reviews:
Randy Newman Live: Edmonds, Wash. (April 18, 2011)
Watching Randy Newman walk on stage was perhaps one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. I didn't know a man could swing his arms about so forcefully without causing the earth to wobble out of orbit. It must've been the result of a lifetime of trying to shoo away all of his rabid admirers who were chasing him down the street, or something. ...Although, I guess according to Newman himself, rabid admirers were never anything he had to deal with much. He said he and his family were in a restaurant once, when his then-teenaged daughter looked around and noticed that nobody was noticing him. “You're not really that famous!” Newman said, quoting her with a mock-sour expression on his face. ...Well, he's certainly famous enough, isn't he? I mean, there are two Oscars, five Grammies, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and not to mention a respectable batch of pop-rock albums that span all the way back to 1968. Perhaps, this means he's just the right kind of famous: He's famous enough to win awards and sell albums but not famous enough to get chased down the street and be mass-recognized in restaurants. I wouldn't mind being so famous!
Apart from the walk itself, there was nothing glamorous about Newman's entrance on that stage at the Edmonds Community Center for the Arts. He said nothing as he sat down at a lone piano on stage and got right down to business and played “Lonely at the Top.” Or at least, I'm pretty sure that was the first song he played. He played such a staggering amount of songs that evening that I knew that I was never going to be able to recall all of them. I sat down at my computer and wrote down everything I remember him playing. I counted 34. It wasn't a terribly long concert—the standard two-and-a-half-hours—but he's written such a buttload of two-to-three minute songs, that it wasn't that challenging to pack them in there! In fact, there was ample amount of time for an intermission and jokey narratives in between songs.
And yet, somehow, he still missed one of my all-time favorites: “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” I guess I only have myself to blame for that one. There were a few moments during the concert when he asked for requests, and he was subsequently met with a cluster of people screaming their heads off. I swear, most people's regular talking voices are louder than my shouting voice, so how was I ever to compete? Ah well, I don't suppose it mattered. I'm still a little surprised I even got to see him at a very small venue that was just 10 minutes away from my house.
Of course, he sang his big song: “Short People.” I'd imagine that nearly everyone in the theater knew it by heart, but there was an awful lot of laughter going on as he was singing it. That included me, of course. I'm no stone-face. I've heard that song a million times, but somehow the lyrics seem funnier when he sings it in person. Perhaps even a more famous song than that is “You've Got a Friend in Me.” That movie came out when I was in middle school, and I've seen it about 12,000 times, so it packed an especially nostalgic note in me when he sang it.
He did have a thing or two to say about Pixar during the concert... And no, it wasn't anything Tabloid-worthy. He said when he scored the first Toy Story, he didn't realize it was animated. He said Woody looked enough like Tom Hanks that he very well could have been in heavy make-up. (...That seems a little bit farfetched to be true, unless he forgot to mention that he'd forgotten to renew his eyeglasses prescription.) He also said Robert Goulet, who sang a big-band version of the song for the movie, kept on wanting to insert the word “babe” into it. He would sing: “You've got a friend in me (babe) / You've got a friend in me (babe).” At the insistence of the Pixar producers, Newman had to ask him to stop. However, Goulet said that was like taking all the soul out of it.
Though he might be most notable today for singing in a kid's movie, it was a very adult concert. I'd say most of the people in the audience (average age: 67) were probably listening to his stuff from the moment they hit the record stores. Of course, they fully realized that his classic albums were far from fluff-jobs.
“Are there any children present?” he asked the audience at one point, most of whom (lied and) screamed out variants of No!! Then he had a huge grin on his face and exclaimed: “Well, shit!” And then he performed “Rednecks.” I guess he didn't want children to misinterpret those famously ironic lyrics, which is easy to do if you're a child. (I hope the children who were actually there weren't scarred for life!) “Rednecks” wasn't the only song he sang from Good Old Boys, which is easily one of the finest albums of his repertoire. He sang a rousing rendition of “Birmingham,” the upbeat “Back On My Feet Again,” the utterly moving ballad “Marie,” and the pastoral “Louisiana 1927.” His other mega-classic from the mid-'70s, Sail Away was well-represented, which I'm sure was much to everyone's delight. I already mentioned “Lonely at the Top,” but there was also “Last Night I Had a Dream,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” “Political Science” (which drew big laughs), and “God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)” (which didn't draw much laughter at all!).
“It's Money That I Love” was the second song he performed that night, and I was thrilled off my ass to know right away that he never snubbed Born Again out of his discography like so many critics and fans seem to do! (Why I remember the concert's second song more vividly than the first is more testament of how thrilled off my ass I was.) Unfortunately, there was only one other song from that album I remember him singing: “The Girls in My Life,” which he jokingly referred to as a song cycle.
I said in my review of his 1999 album Bad Love that Randy Newman is probably the sort of person who would enjoy old age. Could I have actually been right? “Have you ever noticed how rock stars never retire?” he said. “It must be awful for a young people in rock 'n' roll to succeed when there are all these gray-haired people who won't get out of the way.” He then asked the audience to sing the chorus to “I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It),” which goes “He's dead! He's dead!” As the audience was practicing it before he actually began singing the song, he said everyone was so good at it that it was a little bit off-putting. He said it was like we were forcefully trying to send him to his grave. ...What a morbid sense of humor!
What I also liked about the concert was affirmation that his newer songs were exactly as good as his time-tested classics. There were plenty of selections from Harps and Angels (the title track, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” “Losing You,” “Laugh and Be Happy,” “Potholes,” and “Feels Like Home”). Since they sound a lot like his classics, it might lead one to correctly argue that it is proof that Newman was never very versatile with his work. ...However, I've never figured that was worth complaining about; as long as his melodies remain strong and his lyrics can still sting like a wasp, he can keep on rewriting the same album until he dies for all I care.
Easily one of the highlights that night was his rendition of “I Miss You,” another song from Bad Love, which he said was written about his first wife while he was married to his second. After singing it, I swear I saw him subtly wiping away a tear. ...As I said throughout my reviews, there's almost nobody in the world who does quiet and touching piano ballads better than Randy Newman. My only complaint about them at the concert was that there was this rodential looking man sitting right in front of me who kept on grunting, in an orgasmic way, after Newman got one with one of the slow songs. That's like slurping your soup in a fancy restaurant—it's annoying as CRAP! Other songs from Bad Love included “Every Time it Rains,” “The World Isn't Fair,” and the playful “The Great Nations of Europe.” Another song I felt was particularly memorable was “Dixie Flyer,” which he said was one of the most truthfully autobiographical songs he'd ever written.
I really liked that he sang “My Life is Good” from Trouble in Paradise. It was hilarious in the album, but I think the comic delivery was done even better at the concert. He even did that Bruce Springsteen part. You know, when Bruce Springsteen tells him: “Randy I'm tired. How would you like to be The Boss for awhile?” To which, Newman responds in a starry-eyed and childlike voice... “Well... yeah!” ...And I mustn't forget that he also sang “I Love L.A.” I love the song, but I've gotta say it sort of perplexes me that it was ever a hit!
I suppose one drawback to Newman just playing alone with a piano is that he had to fill in those spots with a piano that would have otherwise been taken on by an electric guitar or a brass band or something. Newman even ended up making light of that: “You'd think I'd feel embarrassed playing these little solos,” he said while he was in the middle of a particularly cutesy bit. He then added with a sly smile on his face: “I don't.” ...If I ever get a choice, I'd prefer to hear full orchestration at a pop concert. However, there's also something great about seeing a singer-songwriter going up on stage alone singing his stuff. Why, it's like he was playing in my living room, or something!
So anyway, it was a great show! I can't complain about the seats I had either; 13th row center. The small theater had nice stadium seating, so there were no other heads around that I had to compete with. This was the same venue that I had seen Al Stewart perform just last January, and I already mentioned in that review how good the acoustics were there. I mean, I'd be willing to make a small wager that you'd literally be able to hear a pin drop in the back of the auditorium if the place were empty and quiet. Best of all, it was only about a 10-minute drive from my house! I will say that the venue was quite tiny for such a big name as Randy Newman. Surely, he could have filled up a larger auditorium. I don't even think that venue advertises much. Which works for me, because I know about it! ...Could it be that his reason for coming there was to visit me? Whoah. Maybe I am the center of the universe, after all! I guess my mother was wrong about that.
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