Recording of December 2003: The Randy Newman Songbook Vol.1

RANDY NEWMAN: The Randy Newman Songbook Vol.1
Nonesuch 79689-2 (CD). 2003. Mitchell Froom, prod.; David C. Boucher, eng.; Steven Rhodes, asst. eng. AAD.? TT: 47:22
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

As jagged, ambitious musical talents go, few have been as misunderstood, or have so thrived on that discord, as Randy Newman. He has amassed one of the most melodically fruitful and slyly humorous song catalogs in pop history, one that mixes the influences of Tin Pan Alley, Stephen Foster, and Fats Domino. But he's most famous—or, if you're Jewish, Southern, or a legal midget--most infamous—for the way he's insulted your particular minority.

But Newman's braininess has always hindered his career—he's just too damned sharp, sage, and funny to ever be mainstream-famous. This somber, formal solo collection for acoustic piano and voice, reprising 18 originals from his extensive catalog, emphasizes those qualities to their highest powers.

You can be insulted by Newman only if you've missed the point. "Short People," to name the most egregious example in his catalog—and, in an irony he must have savored, his biggest hit—is about prejudice: not causing it, but fighting it.

Consider "Rednecks," a tune that epitomizes Newman's cunning, smart-aleck mind at work. The opening line, "Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show," accompanied by those familiar piano chords, will bring a smile if not a spontaneous sing-along to the lips of every Newman fan. The song then goes on to skewer both "some smart-ass New York Jew" (Newman is himself Jewish) and "College men from L.S.U. / Went in dumb, come out dumb too," before sprinkling plenty of repetitions of the N-word throughout the chorus. For many listeners, that was enough to make them label Newman a bigot, or worse, and never listen to him again. That he goes on to shine a harsh light on the notion that Northern blacks are "free"—"free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston," as he puts it—was missed by many when it first appeared on his 1974 masterpiece, Good Old Boys.

Such misunderstandings have blurred for some the fact, illustrated over and over again in this splendid collection, that Newman is a national treasure among US songwriters. Few have ever had his wit, his eye for detail, his cheek always full of tongue. His voice and piano shtick ain't bad either.

Here, in pristine sound that, wisely, has not been close-miked to death, Newman is very relaxed, singing in a slightly more world-weary tone than in past years. He is, by turns, full of fumbling, do-it-for-love self-condemnation ("Marie"); outrageous, naughty as hell, and loving it ("It's Money That I Love"); and frankly, happily horny ("You Can Leave Your Hat On").

But it's when his melodies and his lyrics, not to mention his avuncular New Orleans piano professor performing flourishes, fuse into a hugely sentimental yet pointed whole that Newman the artist comes into full view. (This is the opposite of what happens with, say, "Short People," not included here, whose words are all anyone hears.) "Sail Away," from the 1972 album of the same name, receives here a reappraisal that's quietly definitive and emotionally raw, and is perhaps the best example of why this album of older material reprised by an older, wiser Newman works so well.

Although he's often preferred to set his music for chamber-sized orchestras, Newman's music is also cohesive and persuasive enough to benefit from being stripped down, as in this version of "Sail Away," to its most elemental genius. To a likable, ragtime-influenced melody, an 18th-century slaver's pitch to African natives becomes a scathing siren's song: "In America you'll get food to eat / Won't have to run though the jungle / And scuff up your feet / You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day..." Yet even here, in this caustic but tuneful ramble Newman manages to leaven his point with one well-chosen, ridiculous word: scuff. Yet

Newman uses satire or downright goofiness to stare directly into the eye of the inane storm of the so-called human condition. It's a formula he's turned into high art over his nearly 40 years in show business. The proof is that, by the end of "Sail Away," the song working on several different levels, the overwhelming feeling evoked for me is one of abject sadness.

Perhaps the grandest irony of Newman's career, considering his often acerbic wit, is that his ability to write melodies—not to mention his family's legacy in film work, led by uncles Lionel Newman and, especially, Alfred Newman, who won nine Oscars—has made him a sought-after film composer. In this album's three instrumental interludes from his twenty-odd film scores—"Avalon," "When She Loved Me" (from Toy Story 2), and "Ragtime"—his astonishing lyrical gifts for composing incidental music are anything but incidental.

Producer Mitchell Froom stayed out of the way during these sessions, letting Newman wend his quixotic way through these finely etched vignettes, which have no equal in the history of American music.

If you've been insulted by Randy Newman in the past, it may be time to grow up (pun intended) and listen to him again.—Robert Baird