[Originally published on my friend Sam Maclean’s new webzine, In Review Online, a kinda cool new thing featuring beaucoup music and film reviews you might want to check out (you might find a couple of older Kelp things up there, too: a review of the Ruby Suns and a hilarious interview with Ms. Kami Lyle.) Meanwhile, here’s the latest, a Kelp essay on Randy Newman ~]
An old friend called me tonight and mentioned that he had just bought the new Randy Newman cd, “Harps and Angels”, and hadn’t heard it yet; he was about to go on a long drive with someone who was relatively unfamiliar with Newman’s work, and, wanting to start his friend in the right place, wondered if I thought the new one was as good a place as any.
It was a hard question to answer. My friend -let’s call him “Pelnarminous Gilahootaroonie”, though that’s obviously not his “real” name -and I are both huge Randy fans, and I knew he’d love the new album and so I had to say that it is truly difficult to be objective about Randy Newman, and at this point, a new album pretty much immediately feels like a comfortable old coat.
But that’s just me. It has lately come to my attention that there’s a whole new generation (or two!) who mostly know, or at least firstly met, Randy Newman at his day job, shilling for Disney in a succession of wildly popular animated movies, and (I think mostly for that reason) most of them can’t stand him.
I think this is a bad rap, and that’s why I’d like to address the young people of today on Randy’s behalf, by saying, you must be retarded; Randy is way cool.
Now, I admit that on some levels, Randy does not seem to change much. Ever! And that he does have a few songs he likes, that he seems to re-write quite a bit sometimes. That he sings like a frog -this does seem to be something people below the age of twenty are pretty much agreed on, and I understand how they feel, and even agree with them in a way. He’s also a truly affected singer, and I despise affected singers -never dug Tom Waits’ vocals, for instance, much as I like many of the other elements of his music and personality; and no, I can’t tell you why Randy can get away with that bullshit and Tom can’t, but for me, that’s just how it works. Go figure.
But you little whippersnappers should have heard that voice when I first did, on “Randy Newman”, his 1968 debut, coming so out of nowhere he made the Band’s whole anachronistic Matthew Brady thing seem cautious, singing these bitter. totally un-groovy and un-PC character study mini-operas, nasty little songs with unconventional structures, fully orchestrated and then some, with this Jewish kid from Beverly Hills imitating Ray Charles as a Louisiana cracker. He was immediately a critic’s darling and no one else’s; man, they couldn’t give that album away -something Warners even tried with Randy’s pal, Van Dyke Parks (ah, yes, the golden age of record promo! sigh…)
And it’s still an amazing, eye-opening piece that he may have equaled (’74’s “Good Old Boys” would be the contender), but never surpassed; also a record that somehow manages to sound as strange and elusive now as it did then. It’s Randy before he figured out how to get cozy with us, when he was channeling Phil Spector more than Fats Domino… before he became a roots guy (Uncle Randy!) It’s still exhilarating to hear him from before he actually landed, when the music was actually fully as loopy as the lyrics.
Let’s just try to get the lyrics out of the way: unfailingly beautifully observed, shockingly candid, funny, heartbreaking, surprising, sweet, nasty, gorgeous miracles of concision -did I already say funny? The guy is a stone genius.
I remember a conversation in 1977, around the time of his only “hit”, “Short People”, where a few of us were trying to figure out which musician had made the fewest mistakes. See, by 1977, we felt the bloom was well off the rose for many of our heroes, almost all of whom had let us down grievously at some point or other. The Beatles, much as we loved them, regularly scheduled something lame for Ringo, and had also started the whole notion of getting back to our roots -thanks, fellas; the Stones had hired Mick Jones; Ray Charles had recorded “America the Beautiful” (beautifully) and “Elenore Rigby” (not); the Who had discovered synthesizers; Stax and Motown were in the process of giving in to disco; the list goes on and on. We felt that Randy, however, had up to that time not done anything at all that was really degrading and embarrassing -except for having the Eagles do background vocals on his latest album at the time, “Little Criminals”. (It was Randy, though, and after all, it was just background vocals -they were way in the background.) (Nobody’s perfect.)
I’m probably not saying this right at all, and if you already don’t like the guy, you’re probably not reading this anyway, especially after I called you retarded paragraph 4. But the fact remains that this is a man who has produced zero really bad albums. The closest one to being bad is probably 1979’s “Born Again”, which featured his worst backup cast yet (including the dread Waddy Wachtel, Stephen Bishop, and a couple guys from Toto. It was also made during his mercifully brief flirtation with having synthesizers stand in for strings (I’m sure the record companies begged, and what’s a considerate, cost-conscious guy to do?), but it still has a solid handful of outstanding songs, as well as “It’s Money That I Love” and a front cover with the artist in Kiss make-up with dollar signs over his eyes, made at the height of the musician’s equivalent of the gold rush. And that’s as bad as it ever got.
Meanwhile, you’ve got “Good Old Boys”, as sweeping and courageous as Faulkner, but funnier (and if you want gorgeous, download “Marie”); “Sail Away”, with the remarkable cuts “Political Science” and “God’s Song”; “Faust”, with an assortment of bona fide rock stars assisting in the selling of Randy’s soul (try “James Taylor’s “Northern Boy” or Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Feels Like Home To Me”); “Shame”, a beauty off his recent “Bad Love”, where he can’t agree with his background singers; “Trouble in Paradise”’s epic “My Life Is Good”, where he defends his way of life at a PTA meeting; and “Love Story” and “Davy the Fat Boy” off his debut, “Randy Newman.” Download these and tell me he sucks and watch me have a fit.
Not a lick of rockstar bullshit in the bunch, either. Back when folks were jamming and getting psychedelic and grand, Randy was refining the patented Randy Newman ending, which is the shortest, most straight-forward, modest, and some might even say perfunctory ending possible- a simple period.
And let’s talk about the damn movie music, too. There isn’t a better string writer around, not since Elmer Bernstein died. His scores for “Avalon”, “Ragtime”, and “The Natural” are as good as conventional movie music gets, and his string charts on his own albums are a constant wonder, little miracles of concise emotion. Do you know how lucky we are that Randy got the call on the Disney stuff instead of Elton John or Andrew Lloyd Webber or any of those other clowns? Maybe “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” isn’t the greatest thing going, but it beats the shit out of the fucking “Lion King.”
And the new album, “Harps and Angels”, is just fine. It won’t change the world, but as usual, he calls a spade a spade. “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country” comes to mind, in which he affably points out that the the ol’ USA is going down the drain at this point and happy to beg for handouts:
Just a few words in defense of our country
Whose time at the top
Could be coming to an end
Now we don’t want their love
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question
But in times like these
We sure could use a friend
Or the jaunty “Only a Girl”, where an older man weakly defends an affair with a much younger woman as it slowly dawns on him that it’s his money she’s after. Even his re-recording of “Feels Like Home” is way more satisfying than it should be -I thought Bonnie Raitt pretty much owned that one, but turns out ol’ Froggy can still put one over with the best of them.
It’s hard to explain, but it’s hard for me to think of a living singer/songwriter whose work I’m more grateful for.