Randy Newman
Harps And Angels


I have no trouble admitting that, though there had been more than a few semi-official rumours about it being released "in the near future, possibly", it had been a long time since I had abandoned any hope of ever listening to a new Randy Newman album (i.e., a new album featuring unreleased material). This had nothing to do with any reasons of age (though sixty-five years old, Newman appears to be in reasonably good shape), nor with any dimming of his artistic faculties (as Harps And Angels easily demonstrates). It was his ongoing dedication to the difficult art of creating movie soundtracks "on demand" (a role that's definitely in his family's DNA, as witnessed by the career of uncles Alfred, Emil and Lionel) that by now had produced a body of work that goes well beyond what he has created on his own, both in quantity and material success. His getting an Academy Award at last, an Oscar (for the song If I Didn't Have You, from the movie Monster, Inc.), after a ridiculous amount of nominations, had looked like a turning point for an artist who had more than a few Grammys already, but not a single one of them related to that part of his (let's call it) "rock" production that (I bet) will make his name last for quite a long time.

Let's have a quick look at the chronology: Newman's most recent album, Bad Love, had come out in 1999, and the one before that, Land Of Dreams, had been released in 1988. I'm sure that his brand-new, Oscar-related, fame, had played a part in his new label, Nonesuch, releasing The Randy Newman Songbook (quite optimistically subtitled as being Vol. 1) in 2003: a nice album where Newman, sitting alone at a grand piano, performed about two dozen pages from his past repertoire; true, the album didn't feature no orchestra, nor "rock" group, but it worked perfectly as a substitute of a live concert. (The same year saw Randy Newman's Faust, originally released in 1995, being re-released in an expanded edition, of which more later.)

Bad Love is not really my favourite Newman album, for a lot of different reasons, some of which are not even completely clear to me. To me, it sounds too fragmented, even more so than Land Of Dreams, with its three different producers (Mark Knopfler, James Newton Howard, and Jeff Lynne) and their quite disparate approaches - and results! - to the material. (Or maybe it's just the nice sequence of songs on Side Two that makes the weak moments of the album more tolerable?) Bad Love's production wasn't really in sinc with the material: Mitchell Froom was not a "wrong" choice, but I don't really think that the material begged for the kind of sonic hyper-realism that's so typical of Tchad Blake.

There are not many artists deserving the (tired) "cult artist" label as Randy Newman, and not too many "cult artists" have made critics (I'm obviously talking about a time when such a thing as critics still existed) question so deeply the relationship that exists between the work and the audience: here required reading are obviously those pages on Newman by Greil Marcus in the various editions of his book Mystery Train, and those writings by Robert Christgau that can easily be accessed online.

It goes without saying that the key albums are those four classic titles: Randy Newman (1968), 12 Songs (1970), Sail Away (1972), and Good Old Boys (1974). Maybe no album appeared as being more "out of sync" with its time than Newman's first (and what an appealing cover, in the year 1968!), for its mix of topics, attitude, and orchestra. With sales amounting at less than zero, a new "rock" approach was chosen for 12 Songs, with different approaches co-existing on Sail Away, an ambitious concept being explored on Good Old Boys.

Having mentioned his (supposed) cynicism (based on a quite clear moral attitude), we'll have to briefly consider his use of the "untrustworthy narrator" mechanism, a complex figure that has always been the biggest obstacle between Newman and (real) success. In a nutshell, when hearing an artist "speak" we take for granted that it's really the artist that's doing the talking, that really being "his/her" own voice. When it comes to Newman this is not really possible. And even if "being in character" is not really unknown (a for instance discussed by Newman is the song Money For Nothing by Dire Straits), Newman's attitude in his songs is often so "borderline" as to make the process of identification on which mass appeal is based totally impossible. Hence, that fact that the few songs written by Newman that have met with a degree of success have been those heard "without the framework" (such as Marie), or whose implications have been greatly "simplified" by the performer (a classic example here being Sail Away).

"A great artist needs a great audience": so spoke Christgau, as quoted by Marcus. What this sentence really means is open to interpretation, but of course it doesn't refer to the audience that made Short People a hit, Newman's single going up to # 2 in the charts, with the album featuring the single, Little Criminals (1977), climbing the Top Ten. Newman devised "a broader insult" on Born Again (1979) and Trouble in Paradise (1983) (here I have to mention the "helicopter orchestra" created by Michael Boddicker on Song For The Dead, the last track on Trouble In Paradise). During the 80s it was the US monthly Musician that gave generous space to Newman's recorded adventures, with a fine interview - a cover story, no less - by Robert L. Doerschuck for US monthly Keyboard fully explaining Newman the piano player, his love for classical music, for Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and the whole New Orleans "school of playing".

We are right in New Orleans in the CD's opening track, Harps And Angels: it's a piano blues that vaguely reminded me of Monk's Functional, a slow shuffle with saxophones and clarinets, an organ in the background every once in a while, and Newman's "black" voice. Angelic female voices, quite gospel-like, violins, and a story where (luckily!) a mistake in the "higher places" is made.

Losing You is a sad, old-fashioned, ballad, with strings, Newman's vocals taking center stage, almost like film music, but it's a bit out of place here, to me.

Laugh And Be Happy is the start of a memorable segue. What better invitation to immigrants than laughing in front of all adversities? (Roll With The Punches?). It's a kind of Charleston/Dixieland mix featuring brass, strings, trombones, clarinets, percussion, a bit of tip-tap, and the snare drum with a very audible snare.

Maybe the most ambitious piece on the album, A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country had already appeared in 2007 as an iTunes track in a more streamlined version. Here it's a country-waltz with piano, steel guitar, rhythm section, a "soft" orchestra, a guitar using a "soft" pick, the whole briefly reminding the listener of Sail Away.

A Piece Of The Pie sounds appropriately Patriotic, with lotsa timpani, martial voices, brass and flutes. In the course of the song we meet "French Fries", Jackson Browne, Johnny Cougar and General Motors. (Do I seem to catch a verbal quote from Paul Simon's Mrs. Robinson?)

Easy Street is a lazy shuffle featuring piano, guitar, drums played with brushes, clarinets, brass instruments playing a counterpoint, double bass, and vocals. A "moral tale"?

We have a problem, the solution being... Korean Parents. Hence, an appropriate "oriental" air (which for a moment reminded me of Tokyo Rose by Van Dyke Parks), koto, sticks, strings, violin, and a tempo going cha-cha-cha... Perfect, and as real as a jingle.

A bluesy kinda jazz for the vivacious Only A Girl, with clarinets "from the Twenties", a track that doesn't take itself too seriously, and works as a nice bridge to the next track.

It's shuffle time again for Potholes, and the tricks memory plays on us when it makes us remember things we'd prefer not to. Excellent clarinets and brass, a nice counterpoint to the cruel memory.

The album was beautifully recorded and mixed (by David Boucher), arranged (by Randy Newman), played (orchestra, voices, and Randy Newman, Greg Cohen, Steve Donnelly, Pete Thomas, Greg Leisz, and Mitchell Froom), and produced (by Mitchell Froom and Lenny Waronker, the latter having produced or co-produced all Newman's albums up to 1983).

Newman had used a lot of his time and money to create a personal version of Goethe's Faust, and so Randy Newman's Faust (during an interview published in 1983 Newman had declared that a completely recorded blueprint already existed) was at last released in 1995. The album featuring "big" names, a theatrical version was mounted, money was spent, all amounting to nothing, for a whole series of reasons clearly discussed and explained in the booklet of the abovementioned expanded edition released in 2003. It had been Newman's intention to have Feels Like Home, which on the album was sung by Bonnie Raitt, assume an ironic air, but already the theatrical version had transformed the song into a romantic, hand-in-hand duet. An easy, regular melody, the song has already been recorded quite a few times, in the end becoming somewhat famous for its being featured in the Dawson's Creek's soundtrack (where it's performed by Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk). Here the song closes the CD in a version that's light and airy, with piano and vocals to the front.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008

CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 17, 2008