Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Randy Newman -- Harps And Angels (2008)

Randy Newman -- Harps And Angels (Nonesuch)

Nine years after his fantastic Bad Love album, Randy Newman is back with his usual mix of observational songs and social commentary. While there are a few new musical wrinkles, his ragtime-cum-Tin Pan Alley sound is basically the same. What fuels his music are his ideas.

Here, the political commentary is hit-and-miss, while the commentaries and love songs sound pretty good. On the political side, Newman has rarely released something as muddled as "A Piece of the Pie". The song starts out okay, with some of the most interesting music on the album -- it sounds like a cross between John Philip Sousa and Tom Waits. Well, sort of.

Newman is trying to make a point about haves and have nots and how the haves ain’t doing much for everybody else. But he runs off the rails when he notes that "no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne." I think he wrote the lyric just to tweak his buddy and because his name is fun to sing (apparently). As a reference, it’s pretty out-of-date, and then the attack on John Mellencamp and the mention of Bono do nothing to really further the premise. It just doesn’t work.

Things go a little bit better on "Korean Parents", which is Newman’s suggestion for how to get our non-Korean kids to perform better in school. The quasi-Asian flavored music is just thisclose to being offensive, and the joke is pretty thin. This song just doesn’t have much bite to it. But the last verse, where Newman notes that "your parents aren’t the greatest generation...[t]hat generation could be you" almost redeems things.

Newman hits the mark on "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country". This is a classic track, with a bit of a loping country feel. Newman plays his favorite character, the sort of clueless blowhard. Newman mitigates how bad things are in the U.S. now by noting that the country’s current leadership isn’t as bad as Hitler or Stalin. Newman then shifts to looking at how things really are, and gets in some digs at the Supreme Court: "I defy you, anywhere in the world/to find me two Italians as tight-assed as the two Italians we got."

There are some other songs that equal or surpass that track. The New Orleans parlor jazz pop of "Only a Girl" verges on Lyle Lovett territory, as Newman describes the young girl who’s in love with him. She’s full of quirks, and only at the end does he figure out what she sees in him.
The string-laden "Losing You" harkens back to old Newman classics like "Louisiana 1927" and "I Miss You". Newman shows yet again that for all of the cynicism and nasty humor, he can be as achingly sincere as anyone. The album closer "Feels Like Home" is also in this vein, though it sounds like it’s overreaching a bit.

And the title track isn’t a classic, but it’s a song that only Newman can do. Over some typical boogie woogie piano, Newman essays a near death experience. This being Newman’s world, he’s only saved from death by the recognition of a clerical error. Yet he clearly doesn’t get the lesson that he’s being taught -- he just wants to go out and get a drink.

This isn’t Grade-A Newman, but, as always, there is plenty of worthwhile stuff here. Now the question is whether it will take him another nine years to recharge his batteries?

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