You know, sometimes it really is just down to the songs. On hearing Kate Bush lavish sounding Before the Dawn for the first time recently, I have to admit, I was impressed, especially given how much improved many of the songs were with Bush’s mature and more lived-in vocal. Something I did ponder on however was how many of her fans who saw those much-celebrated live shows were just a bit over whelmed by the production spectacle of it all, and would have much rather her strip back the visual spectacle and put her songs centre stage. Kate Bush isn’t alone in obscuring a great songbook in favour of concentrating on delivering a technically impressive visual spectacle, indeed, for the last quarter of a century there has been no one worse for that than her long time friend Peter Gabriel.
In fact. – Peter. – Kate. I hope you both know how much I have appreciated your musical outputs throughout my life, and don’t take this the wrong way, but next time you do a tour, or a live residency somewhere, can you just leave the dressing up box and lap tops at home, and just go on to a bare stage with your band, and play your songs without the visual bells and whistles to distract the audience from the fact that you’ve both written great songs through your careers? I know you both love the theatrical stuff, but can you just think simpler next time? Think about going back to basics. Think like Randy Newman.
It’s strange how much criticism Randy Newman has received for recording a trio of albums on which he revisits some of his finest songs to perform them simply and unadorned with only his own piano playing to back up his vocals. On first hearing The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1 back in 2003, I must admit, I was initially baffled by its existence, however I quickly realised, that much like Kate Bush on her recent live opus, Newman’s aged vocals gave his songs a considerably more experienced and lived in quality, and the sparse sound highlighted the quality of his songwriting.
Sure, there are those that will try and level criticisms that of Newman’s six studio albums in the pop genre in the last three decades, three see him doing retreads of old material, and that somehow equates to a degree of creative laziness. However, that is going out of your way to overlook the (count ’em) 20 film scores and soundtracks that Newman has released in that time, and completely ignoring the weird off-broadway musical Randy Newman’s Faust from the mid 90s.
While I have to confess, that even though I loved Songbook Vol. 1, I gave The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 2 a miss. Looking at the track listing when it was released, I just didn’t feel I needed new bare-boned versions of those songs in my life. If it’s something that Newman can do that few musicians are capable of, it is crediting his audience with enough intelligence and a discerning nature. He wouldn’t mind if I gave Songbook Vol. 2 a miss.
When I took a glance at the track list for The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3, I knew I was back on board. “Short People”, “Love Story”, “Guilty”, these are all songs that I have loved for years, yet I needed to hear Randy Newman strip these songs back to the musical basics and inject them with even more world-weariness than he had previously. It doesn’t stop there either, as he claims back “Mama Told Me Not To Come” from the horrific version attempted by Tom Jones and Stereophonics, revisits the utterly brilliant “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” and “I Love L.A.”. Oh, and he takes time out to remind you what a weird but utterly correct choice he was to write the soundtrack to Toy Story by way of an utterly straight-faced “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, with not a single wink of irony. It’s a great song dammit, and should be celebrated as such.
The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3 is the sound of one of the greats revisiting old masterpieces and reminding everyone what a truly brilliant songwriter he was. This isn’t a tacky attempt to rewrite history in the same way that Tubular Bells 2003 was. No, this is Randy Newman crediting his audience with enough intelligence to know that the original versions of these great songs are still out there, and remain definitive, but here he is shining a spotlight on what great songs they were, and in that sense, The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3 is an absolute success, and he’s even riding his bicycle around the studio to celebrate.
Hell, it’s so good, I might even check out The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 2.