A Buyers Guide to Randy Newman

Quick – who is the greatest songwriter America has ever produced?

Okay, how many of you said Bob Dylan? More than three quarters of you I should imagine and you may even be right, but how many of you looked beyond the obvious and said Randy Newman? Quite a few probably, because you’re reading an article about him.

It’s a mystery to me why Randy Newman rarely receives the appropriate praise for his contributions to popular song. Granted he is primarily recognised as a songwriter and arranger rather than a performer in his own right, and as he has concentrated ever more on film soundtracks, the release of his studio albums throughout the decades has been increasingly sporadic to say the least, but his relatively sparse output has ensured that viewed as a whole Newman’s songbook is among the strongest and most consistent of anyone working within the realms of popular music.

This buyers guide concentrates primarily on Newman’s studio albums – his soundtrack work would take up a whole other article, and I’m sure I’d still miss out a few of his key soundtracks.

Having been a songwriter and arranger from the mid 60s, and with his material recorded by the likes of Peggy Lee, Alan Price and Judy Collins, it was only a matter of time before Randy Newman released an album himself. Released in 1968, Randy Newman (Creates Something New Under the Sun), finds Newman the performer taking his first tentative steps in the studio.

Despite being primarily remembered as a songwriter, Randy Newman’s vocals do have a charm of its own. Although he has never possessed a technically brilliant voice, his bitter, sarcastic and world-weary delivery gives his material an added bite that the majority of people covering his songs have lacked. Admittedly on his debut he was still finding his feet as a vocalist, but songs like “Love Story (You And Me)” and “Living Without You” gives a hint of what heights he would achieve later in his career. If you require any convincing of Newman’s ability to sing his own material, you need only listen to “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”. It’s a song that lesser talents would over-egg with false emotion, yet Newman delivers it with a potent mix of resignation and cynicism. No matter how many people have tried to cover Randy Newman songs over the years, almost no one ever nails them as well as Randy Newman himself.

If Randy Newman (Creates Something New Under the Sun) has a failing, it’s that Newman doesn’t seem to have the confidence he would display on his later albums, sometimes relying on the accompanying orchestrations to carry a song a little too much. This is most obvious on “Linda” and “Laughing Boy”, where a couple of good little songs are almost smothered by the over-zealous orchestra.

Randy Newman (Creates Something New Under the Sun) proved that despite his vocal limitations, Randy Newman was usually the best at getting the most out of the songs he had written and that there are some songs that lose something when performed by a pitch-perfect voice. Can you imagine anyone else getting away with singing a number like “Davy The Fat Boy”?. No, me neither.

After the orchestral excess of his eponymous debut, Randy Newman stripped back his sound for his sophomore effort, 12 Songs, largely relying on a simple piano, guitar, bass and drums format. While this did little to mask the imperfections in Newman’s voice, it gave the songs the room to breath in the simpler arrangements. He didn’t mess about with a sub-standard backing-band either, as this album features the guitar work of Ry Cooder and the drums of Jim Gordon.

The songs themselves are heavier on the wit and satire than those on his debut, but the hit rate is slightly lower, as tunes such as “If You Need Oil” and “Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues” do miss the mark a little. Where the songs are strong though, they are among Newman’s most memorable, with the rollicking party tune of “Mama Told Me Not To Come” being among Newman’s best known songs and “Lover’s Prayer” finding him at his sardonic and cynical best.

There are also numbers which Newman wrote and performed in character, such as “Yellow Man” (described by Newman as ‘A pin-heads view of China’) and “Old Kentucky Home”, which if you didn’t realise that Newman did not support the views expressed in these songs, some may find offensive. That Newman was able to highlight the absurdity of some opinions by singing about them shows the increasing quality of his songwriting at this stage of his career. 12 Songs may be less than half an hour in duration, but Newman makes more intelligent observations about the world we live in that time than most acts do over their entire career. Perhaps more than any other songwriter of his generation, Newman understood the concept of quality over quantity and let’s face it, if you’re going to have a creepy stalker-anthem-as-love-song in your music collection, you’re not going to find a better one than “Suzanne”.

After the stripped back feel of 12 Songs and the orchestrations of his self titled debut both registered minimal sales, Randy Newman chose a different approach to showcasing his talents, in recording a small club gig which featured him alone at the piano. A bare bones approach it may have been, but Live leaves the listener in no doubt that Randy Newman is one of the finest songwriters in the history of popular song. This is Randy Newman in the raw, cracked cynical vocals to the fore with his beautiful unadorned piano playing providing the type of subtle backing that only the original writer can provide. Even the audience (usually the downside to any live album) is unobtrusive with those in attendance sat in silent awe until the end of each number, when there’s healthy rapturous applause which quickly quietens down in expectation of the next song

Interestingly this live album consists of material that would not find its way onto a studio album for years to come, indicating that Newman has always had a stockpile of fine songs to call upon whenever he’s putting a new project together. There are even a couple of songs that have never appeared on any of Newman’s studio albums in the heartwarming “Tickle Me” and the oddly entertaining “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong”. Songs which had perhaps previously suffered a little with the full band approach on Newman’s first two albums are given a new lease of life here, with “Cowboy” and “Davy The Fat Boy” benefiting the most and “Mama Told Me Not To Come” sounding superb, even without Ry Cooder’s slide playing.

As you’ve probably gathered Live is one of my favourite live recordings, presenting simple piano and vocal reworkings of some of the best songs by one of America’s greatest wordsmiths. It entertains, it educates, it lasts just over half an hour and it leaves you wondering why Randy Newman is not spoken of in the same reverential tones reserved for Dylan, Young or Waits.

By 1972 Randy Newman had established himself as one of the exponents of popular song with enough guts and intelligence to write songs from the perspectives of a whole host truly repugnant characters and still turn them into thoroughly entertaining toe-tapping tunes.

Take Sail Away for example, it’s less than half an hour long, but you get songs encouraging native Africans to board slave boats to start a new life in America (as Newman himself intelligently put it “How else was I going to do it? Slavery is bad?”), a sadly still relevant comment on American foreign policy in the absurdly funny “Political Science” in which the only reason the American Government decides to spare Australia from the nuclear holocaust is the fact that they have kangaroos and good surfing – the rest of the world outside of the USA of course having already been smoked. There’s even a message from an unsympathetic and callous God to humanity called “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” in which he decides to abandon the human race to their own ends, which in itself is a kiss-off following the blind-faith displayed in “He Gives Us All His Love”.

Sail Away is Randy Newman at the top of his game, writing and performing from the perspective of characters that it is almost impossible to sympathise with, yet you can’t help but sing along with, thus leading you to question your own moral standards, which is something that very few songwriters ever manage to do. There’s also lightness and frivolity as well, with “Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear” showing a side of Randy Newman that would later go on to write music for tPixar films. If these don’t push your buttons, then maybe the deeply sarcastic “Lonely At The Top” is for you, which is sung from the point of view of an entertainer who has grown disenchanted with the trappings of fame. Perhaps inevitably when it was offered to Frank Sinatra he turned it down, however it has since become one of Newman’s signature tunes.

1974’s Good Old Boys finds Randy Newman at a peak both as a writer and vocalist, songs like “Rednecks” and “Back on My Feet” display his sense of humour, the quite stunning “Louisiana 1927” is a thing of wonder and “Marie” is a heartbreaking song of regret and betrayal that no one could have written except Randy Newman. Perhaps the trouble is that there’s perhaps a little too much cleverness here and Newman had perhaps got a little complacent and comfortable in his writing style resulting in the listener yearning for something a little less smug.

Once again Newman employed the very best session musicians to play on Good Old Boys, with the likes of Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner both making appearances among a host of other names.

I’ve never figured out why, but I’ve never quite connected with this album. It’s obviously one of Randy Newman’s best albums, it contains some of his finest material and it has a solid theme about the American South running through it, but as good as it is it just doesn’t grab me as perhaps it should. When I listen to this album I can fully understand how it has become the favourite of many Randy Newman fans. What I cannot understand is why it isn’t one of mine.

After three years of uncharacteristic silence from Randy Newman, he came back with Little Criminals, an album that was a more obvious attempt at appealing to a mass audience and to a certain extent it worked as it became one of his biggest seller. Little Criminal’s commercial success was mainly down to the witty and acerbic comment on bigotry that was “Short People”, which became his biggest hit single in the USA. Elsewhere Newman is backed by members of The Eagles, offers up material about Albert Einstein, sings about Irish girls and promises to be home soon.

These moves towards commercialism makes Little Criminals one of Newman’s most contrived albums, but also the one of most appeal to the average pop and rock fan. The opening three tracks are a bit of a false start though, as they give the feel of a shift towards more guitar-heavy material. As soon as you hit “Texas Girl At the Funeral Of Her Father”, string sections are reinstated and strangely emotional piano playing has returned and from there on in there’s a good number of great songs, but little in the way of unity as it rattles between poppy melodies and somber tunes.

If you tread carefully there are some quite brilliant songs to be found here, with my personal favourites being “Short People” (being a medium height fellow from a family of short-arses that are barely five foot two, I never miss an opportunity to play this at family gatherings), the kiss-off that is the title track, the slightly threatening “Baltimore” and the swaggering “Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easier)”.

Even for a man used to writing from the perspective of unlovable characters, 1979’s Born Again is a strangely mean-spirited little album, with Newman in harsh and unsympathetic form. After the success with the more commercial direction of Little Criminals, Born Again is more of the same, just not quite as good and with more ungainly synthesisers.

There are tracks on Born Again is where as a writer Newman was still on top form, as the mean and nasty “It’s Money That I Love”, “They Just Got Married” and “The Girls In My Life” demonstrate. Elsewhere there is note-perfect parody in the Electric Light Orchestra bating “Story Of A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band”, the sinister and threatening “Pretty Boy” and the unbelievably unpleasant “Mr Sheep”, where you actually end up sympathising with the average guy in the suit instead of the repugnant free spirit from whose point of view the song is delivered.

Born Again also has songs that fall strangely flat, which is a strange accusation to make where Randy Newman is concerned, but songs like “Spies” and “William Brown” just aren’t up to Newman’s usual standards and “Pants” is just as bad as its title suggests.

The unpleasantness of Born Again is quite unrelenting as there are hardly any moments of lightness or hope. There are usually a couple of moments in every Randy Newman album where there is a brief glimmer of respite indicating that the characters that Newman is playing may possibly redeem themselves, but on Born Again there is no such hope. The general message of the album is that it’s time to give in, the bad guys won.

Trouble in Paradise found Newman waking up in the early 80s amid the synthesiser boom and trying to assimilate this new sound into his material. By and large he didn’t do a bad job and even managed to rope in Paul Simon for a duet on an album which viewed America in the early 80s with an unyielding, critical and cynical eye.

Newman is a uniquely unforgiving songwriter. Most of the characters he writes about are unsympathetic and often grotesque caricatures, which goes some way to explaining why he rarely get’s mentioned in the same hushed and reverential tones as Bob Dylan, the only contributor to the American songbook on even a vaguely even footing as Randy Newman. Trouble in Paradise is populated by the same arrogant millionaires, down and outs and money-grabbing philanderers as much of his studio and at no point does he ever try and airbrush just how horrific society can be.

This unrelenting honesty is Newman’s great gift. Other songwriters may have tried to clumsily give each of the characters some context, holding the listener’s hand and trying reassure them somehow. Newman just gives a knowing wink and trusts that his listener is smart enough to know that these horrible examples of humanity don’t reflect his own opinions, but that he is performing his songs in character as a way of holding a mirror up to society to highlight just how unpleasant life can be.

While no one could claim that Trouble in Paradise is an album on a par with Sail Away, the thing is Newman’s quality control is so good that even his not so great albums, are still actually pretty good.

Randy Newman was relatively quiet through the 80s, at least as far as the release of new studio albums were concerned, so when he released Land of Dreams in 1988, there was a considerable level of anticipation from his fanbase.

Land of Dreams is unlike any other Randy Newman album as he experimented with writing a few songs of an autobiographical nature, something which he had rarely done in the past. It was a critically acclaimed album on its release, and it is well thought of among his fanbase, but personally I just didn’t ‘get it’. It seemed a little too bogged down and ponderous for me, though I have to admit that “I Want you to Hurt Like I Do”, is a heartbreaking work of genius.

After eleven years of keeping up the family tradition of writing soundtracks and musicals, Randy Newman finally returned to studio albums with Bad Love and his loyal fanbase really didn’t know what to expect. Newman’s last studio album had been the divisive Land of Dreams, where Newman broke his habit of a lifetime and wrote autobiographical songs. The Randy Newman’s Faust musical of the mid 90s had been an interesting diversion, but it hardly set the world alight. On the upside his soundtrack work had indicated he was still capable of brilliance, particularly with Toy Story.

Initially things weren’t looking too good, as Newman recruited the production team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, an interesting choice, but hardly the obvious guys to produce one of the finest songwriters in the history of popular music. Could it be that Randy Newman was trying to appeal to a young audience by recruiting hip young(ish) producers?

At the end of the days all these fears were unfounded as Bad Love proved to be the best Randy Newman Album since Sail Away over quarter of a century album previously. The album found Newman on bitter, grumpy, sarcastic and quite brilliant form, telling backing singers to shut up (“Shame”), lamenting lost loves (the genuinely touching “Every Time It Rains” and “I Miss You”) and searching for acceptance from his peers while his tongue is planted firmly within his cheek (“I Want Everyone To Like Me”). Newman’s vocals also sound fantastic, as he’s one of the few singers whose voice has actually improved with age.

Bad Love is an album that looks back over a life lived. These are not songs written by an old timer in a desperate attempt to sound relevant to a young audience, this is the sound of a great songwriter with his creative marbles very much intact, which is something which very few musicians his age have managed. Indeed Newman takes a swing at these desperate old acts operating on auto pilot in the mock-rocking “I’m Dead And I Don’t Know It” (“Each record that I’m making, Is like a record I have made, Just not as good.”). One can only hope that have traded on former glories for far too long were taking note. “Big Hat, No Cattle” indeed.

There are moments where Newman’s quality control does slip a little, with both “The Great Nations Of Europe” and “The World Isn’t Fair” both being surplus to requirements and neither quite fit into the theme of the album, despite both of them being lyrically clever. I for one would have welcomed a return to the brevity of Newman’s 70s albums, where his albums were rarely longer than half an hour and always left the listener wanting more.

Despite Bad Love being an artistic and critical success it would be another nine years before Newman released another studio album. Harps and Angels isn’t bad on the whole, but in the grand scheme of Randy Newman albums, I have to ask if this one was worth the wait. Where Bad Love was a brutally funny meditation on the aging process, this follow up just seems to coast along on subtle musicianship and smart lyrics. Now usually this is what most would want from a Randy Newman album, but there’s no denying that Newman’s lyrics lack the punch of his best work and there’s nothing here that stands out tune wise. It’s not as if he’s running low on inspiration and ideas, it’s just that songs like “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” and “Korean Parents” just don’t have the vicious lyrical bite that these songs are crying out for.

Randy Newman has a longstanding tradition of singing in character, but these characters lack the humour and obnoxiousness that his best creations have and as a result this is a weaker album in the grand scheme of his career.

As a relaxing listen, Harps and Angels hits the spot, as long as you like social commentary and lyrical smarts. As Randy Newman albums go, it’s good, but hardly essential.

For those wanting a broad overview of Newman’s career, there are a few options available, the most obvious of which is Lonely at the Top : The Best of Randy Newman. One of the best single disc compilations of any musical act available on CD, it covers his work up to Trouble in Paradise and is still readily available. A more idiosyncratic route is to investigate the two Randy Newman Songbook albums, which feature Newman in recent years paring back some of his greatest songs to just his voice and piano. These albums are seen as redundant by some of his fans, but personally I feel it has been a worthwhile project so far as the unadorned nature of the recordings, as well as Newman’s more mature and lived in voice, gives some of the material greater gravitas.

While Randy Newman albums these days are few and far between, he’s certainly not resting on his laurels, indeed, he’s becoming increasingly prolific when it comes to soundtrack work, having recorded no less than 21 soundtracks since the early 80s for films as diverse as Ragtime, Toy Story, Maverick and Seabiscuit, but to cover all of these as well would demand a far, far longer article, and personally I’ve always been about Newman’s studio albums.

A few years ago I was a prolific writer, writing three of four short poems a week. I’d got good at it as well, with my friends demanding to view my latest random scribblings on a regular basis. Then one day I stumbled across the work of Randy Newman and it was a body blow, as I had discovered a songwriter who had already said everything I’d ever wanted to say in an infinitely superior way than I could have ever imagined. I stopped writing immediately, because if I had continued I would have constantly been comparing my work to that of Randy Newman and would have ended up weeping tears of frustration on a daily basis and to be honest I just wouldn’t have been able to deal with that kind of pain.

Previous Live: Human Hair. Bell Jar, Sheffield 1-6-14 + 'View from the Pit' Gallery
Next Album review - 3TEETH - 3TEETH

No Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.