Randy Newman

Live (1970)
(5 stars)

This album was my first exposure to the man who would become my favorite singer/songwriter (sorry for all the hyperbole in this post, it’s just turning out that way. Plus, I’m wicked drunk on Zima right now). And while one of Randy Newman’s inimitable qualities is his imaginative orchestral arrangements, I’ve always preferred the way he sounds on this release, a selection of tracks recorded at a pair of 1970 Newman solo performances at the NYC club The Bitter End. He performs cuts off his first two albums (like the twisted sexual satire “Mama Told Me Not To Come” and the I’m-lonely-in-a-crappy-apartment ballad “Living Without You”), material off of the forthcoming wonderment Sail Away, and a pair of sweet, ingenious songs about awkwardness in the bedroom that never appeared anywhere else – “Tickle Me” and “Maybe I’m Doing it Wrong.” And as pretty as the strings are on the original recording of “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” it doesn’t hold a candle to Newman’s performance of it here, which embodies a sky streaked with grey with tear-welling poignancy. Capturing the sweet and sardonic sides of this artist with fly-on-the-wall starkness, Randy Newman Live is the kind of record that makes you thank god the tape was rolling.

imagesBad Love (1999)
(4 stars)

After 1988’s Land of Dreams, Randy Newman took a long break from traditional record-making to focus on film music (and his so-so Faust musical). I’d bet the 11 years between Dreams and Bad Love made for the most lucrative period of his career. You might’ve thought that all those Oscar nominations and Pixar paydays would soften the guy, that when he got around to recording another batch of songs, they’d be somewhat pleasant – even, dare I say, optimistic. But Bad Love isn’t just a work of caustic satire typical of Newman’s oeuvre. It’s the bitterest, saddest, most unflinchingly personal work of his career. The songs depict families falling apart in front of televisions, dirty old men cursing at women half their age, native peoples suffering and dying. Which would make for untenable listening if most of this stuff wasn’t also hilarious – especially “The World Isn’t Fair,” an open letter to Karl Marx that finds Newman acknowledging his good fortune by talking about how preposterously undeserving of it he is. Like most self-absorbed people, Randy’s incapable of change here, and we’re all the richer for it.

Harps and Angels (2008)
(4 1/2 stars)

Randy Newman’s music has always been the perfect blend of the orchestral and the satirical – he’s the kind of artist that places a string-soaked ode to a dying father alongside a sprightly number about the upsides of a nuclear holocaust. And while provocative young songwriters tend to soften as they get older and more successful, Newman hasn’t lost a drop of his bitterness. On Harps and Angels, his 10th album and first in close to a decade, the singer/songwriter is fed up with capitalism’s empty pleasures – the scary bravado of the Bush administration, the crappy way our nation of immigrants treats new immigrants, the women that are only with him for his money – and he takes all of them on with dripping sarcasm. Like the song “Laugh And Be Happy,” where he encourages illegal aliens to “smile right in their face/because pretty soon, you’re going to take their place.” Or “Piece of the Pie,” which lampoons the American dream over clashing brass and percussion – “Living in the richest country in the world/Wouldn’t you think you’d have a better life?” Add a couple sincere, openhearted love songs to the mix, like the regret-laden “Losing You” and the timeless “Feels Like Home,” and you’ve got yet another unforgettable slice of Bayou-seasoned Americana, from our most delightfully embittered old man.