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Back Tracks: Randy Newman

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With apologies to the popular Disneyland attraction and video game, nearly everybody in America was experiencing Toy Story mania this past weekend. And chances are if a tune is running through our collective head, it’s Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” which debuted in 1995’s Toy Story and is reprised in the third entry, estimated to have grossed $109 million on its opening weekend.

Yet that song enjoyed by kids of all ages reflects just one side of its composer’s dual nature. If Randy Newman’s Dr. Jekyll is the respected film composer and purveyor of timeless Disney songs that can stand alongside the Sherman Brothers’ best, his Mr. Hyde is the man behind an unparalleled series of albums joining classic songcraft to a singularly scathing, satirical wit. So on the occasion of America embracing Newman the Oscar-winning family tunesmith, Back Tracks looks now at the truly idiosyncratic solo catalog of the other Randy Newman, the songwriter who influenced a generation.  Join us after the jump!

Randy Newman (Reprise, 1968)

Prior to the release of 1968’s self-titled debut, Randy Newman was a staff songwriter for Los Angeles’ Metric Music, sort of a West Coast Brill Building where he worked alongside the likes of Jackie DeShannon honing his skills. (The fruits of his labor can be found on two Ace compilations which I cannot recommend enough – 2008’s On Vine Street: The Early Songs of Randy Newman and 2010’s Bless You California: More Early Songs of Randy Newman.) The back of the LP read: “Randy Newman creates something new under the sun!” And while intended ironically (irony being one of Newman’s favorite weapons, always ready to be deployed), it wasn’t far from the truth. Produced by his childhood friend Lenny Waronker and quirky wunderkind Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman featured some scathing social commentary sheathed in large, gorgeous orchestrations by the composer himself. Even this early on, it was evident that Randy learned something from his uncles, Lionel and Alfred Newman, two of the most illustrious composers in Hollywood history. The young Newman was the rare talent equally gifted in both melody and lyrics.  “Davy the Fat Boy” and “So Long, Dad” are uncomfortably hysterical, while “Love Story” plainly tells the story of a couple from marriage to death, playing checkers all day in a Florida nursing home. Newman’s unique humor was already in full bloom, to wit this exchange from “Love Story”: “We’ll have a kid/Or maybe we’ll rent one, He’s got to be straight/We don’t want a bent one.” All of these songs were delivered in his off-hand, growl of a drawl, providing a contrast to the beautiful arrangements. When Randy Newman turned serious, the results were heartbreaking and simple (though far from simplistic): “Living Without You” (“It’s so hard…living without you”) or the oft-covered “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”: “Human kindness is overflowing/And I think it’s going to rain today,” which manages to be both cynical and achingly sad. A major new talent had arrived.

12 Songs (Reprise, 1970 – reissued Audio Fidelity, 2010)

Randy Newman may have created something new under the sun, but the world wasn’t yet ready for that something, and the album sold poorly. So he and Waronker tried something different for 12 Songs, abandoning its lush orchestra for a tight, raunchy rock band featuring Ry Cooder, Clarence White, Gene Parsons and Jim Gordon, among others, anchored by Newman’s rollicking, New Orleans-influenced piano. If the instrumentation on 12 Songs was more traditionally rock-oriented, the songs were no less quirky and wonderfully twisted. The rocker “Have You Seen My Baby?” opened the album, and it continued with Newman’s own, considerably dryer take on “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” which would become a No. 1 hit by Three Dog Night a few months later. “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” and “Suzanne” upped the darkness quotient, while Newman tackled one of his favorite themes, the ridiculousness of racial prejudice, both in his own “Yellow Man” and in a straight-ahead, deadpan cover of “Underneath the Harlem Moon.” He addressed the vagaries of Southern life for the first but certainly not the last time in the biting “My Old Kentucky Home.” 12 Songs’ taut character studies saw Newman coming close to perfecting the art of singing in the voice of his characters, most of whom were loathsome but all too recognizably human. A 2010 reissue on Audio Fidelity added no new tracks or even liner notes, but features the album in its best sound yet as mastered by Kevin Gray.

Randy Newman Live (Reprise, 1971)

1971’s Randy Newman Live was packaged to resemble a bootleg or radio station promo item, and its contents were as stark as its cover: simply Randy Newman at a piano, going through 14 of his greatest not-quite-hits. These songs looked back to his first two albums and forward to his next ones, as well, with two songs receiving their only recordings here: “Tickle Me” and the slyly funny, oh-so-dry “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong,” which clocks in at slightly over a minute. Newman is touching in unadorned versions of “Living Without You” and “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” as well as on “I’ll Be Home,” which would subsequently be covered by everybody from Barbra Streisand to Scott Walker. Those looking for his edgy side would be indulged with many songs, too, including the debut of “Lonely at the Top,” which brilliantly skewed the nature of celebrity and success. Newman wrote the song for Frank Sinatra, but the Chairman, unsurprisingly, passed on it. Of course, when sung by Newman, who hardly was at the top in 1971, it took on an extra, delicious layer of irony. (Newman played it for Barbra Streisand, too, but she wisely realized that its bitterly satirical lyric would have been taken too seriously if sung by her. The same most likely would have applied to a Sinatra rendition.) Many of the songs heard here are still concert staples for Newman today.

Sail Away (Reprise, 1973 – reissued Rhino, 2002)

For his third studio album, Randy Newman crafted a song cycle that remains one of his masterworks. Sail Away combined both the orchestral pomp of his debut with the rawness of 12 Songs, but the songwriting was even more focused. The title song featured an orchestra conducted by another renowned uncle, composer/conductor Emil Newman. It’s sung from the POV of a slave trader enticing humans to “sail away” to America, land of the “sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake,” where they’ll find themselves as happy as a “monkey in a monkey tree.” Newman wasn’t pulling any punches here.  He took the self-deluded celebrity of “Lonely at the Top” (heard here in orchestrated form) to the next level with “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” with its bleak look at mere mortals in the grand scheme of things, coming from the mouth of a most cynical God. One of the best-loved songs in Newman’s canon, “Political Science,” also hails from Sail Away. This foreign policy admonishment to “drop the big one now” has unfortunately never seemed more timely. Newman points out, “They all hate us anyhow!”

His rock side treated us to “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” with its creepy singer lecherously, and specifically, instructing his lady friend before lovemaking. When Newman sings it, the character is somewhat pathetic. As with many of his works, it took on another dimension when covered by others. The strutting likes of Joe Cocker and Tom Jones had a field day with the song. Sail Away’s variety is epitomized by the inclusion of “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.” An offbeat composition that predates Randy Newman, “Simon Smith” was the song where Randy found his own voice after penning songs for Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black and Jackie DeShannon. While on one level it tackles prejudice, it was sincere and innocent enough to be covered by none other than Fozzie Bear of the Muppets! Rhino’s 2002 expanded edition included 5 bonus tracks: the outtake “Let it Shine,” the studio version of “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong,” and demos/early takes of “Sail Away,” “Dayton, Ohio – 1903” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” David Wild’s terrific liner notes round out this essential reissue.

Good Old Boys (Reprise, 1974 – reissued Rhino, 2002)

Good Old Boys began life as a series of demo recordings provisionally titled Johnny Cutler’s Birthday, with each song sung from the point of view of the eponymous Southerner. The germ of the idea began when Newman watched an appearance by Georgia governor Lester Maddox on Dick Cavett’s talk show. Newman immediately put himself in the shoes of a Southerner he named Johnny Cutler, watching the cosmopolitan New York host and his guest, football hero Jim Brown, exerting their moral superiority over the controversial governor. In writing the song, Newman found himself liberally using the word “n—-r” in the song that would become album opener “Rednecks.” As David Wild points out in his typically erudite and entertaining liner notes for Rhino’s 2002 reissue, the word was shocking enough for Americans coming from the mouth of a black comedian like Richard Pryor. But coming from a white singer-songwriter? The word, and the song, remain incendiary today. And “Rednecks” was just the starting point of this startlingly rich concept album exploring the American South. While Newman’s albums generally were greeted with critical hosannas, some took him to task for his rather nasty sense of humor as heard in “Rednecks,” however warranted its targets.

But not all of the songs were as unforgiving; “Louisiana 1927” is a gorgeous tale of the great flood, while “Birmingham” evinces great empathy with the working class of the city. Other highlights included what may be the best drunken love song ever written, “Marie,” and the political commentary of “Kingfish,” about Depression-era Louisiana governor Huey Long. Newman takes the connection one step further by covering a song actually co-written by Long, “Every Man a King.” The artist was probing territory left alone by his more reflective contemporaries, humanizing characters that might otherwise remain solely seen as one-note failures or even monsters. By utilizing humor, he was also forcing audiences to confront their own prejudices. While the Johnny Cutler character disappeared from the finished album, his spirit remained. Rhino’s 2002 expanded edition includes the whole of Johnny Cutler’s Birthday on Disc 2, and adds a demo recording of “Marie” to Disc 1. Good Old Boys may remain the most cohesive collection in the Newman catalog, high-minded but all too frighteningly accessible. With crisp production by Waronker and Russ Titelman, adventurous pop music gets no better than this, and its rich picture of the darker side of American life remains as persuasive as the best of musical theatre.

Little Criminals (Reprise, 1977 – reissued Rhino, 2002)

Could Randy Newman get in any hotter water than he did for “Rednecks”? The answer is: yes. While Good Old Boys only reached No. 36 on the Billboard album charts, its follow-up went Top Ten thanks largely to the shocking success (No. 2 on the pop singles chart!) of its leadoff track, “Short People.” Newman once more tackled race relations, employing a metaphor he felt was incredibly obvious. He set it to a bouncy melody and got The Eagles to provide the angelic backing vocals. And all of a sudden, he found himself in the middle of a tempest when short people of America scoffed at lines sung by the song’s prejudiced narrator such as “Short people/got no reason to live.” Glenn Frey, Timothy B. Schmit and J.D. Souther then interjected, “Short people are just the same as you and I…” Newman was shocked by the objections, which received national news coverage: “I had no idea that people are that sensitive…I had no idea that they would take a lunatic like the guy in the song seriously.” But he didn’t bargain at how few listening to “Short People” were familiar with the rest of his catalog or his satirical first-person approach. But “Short People” and its runaway success undoubtedly brought more than a few of those listeners into the Newman fold. The rest of Little Criminals (again produced by Waronker and Titelman) was less ambitious than Good Old Boys, and had a distinct country-rock sheen thanks to the cream of LA’s session men: Waddy Wachtel, Jim Keltner, Milt Holland. Bona fide classics were present: “Baltimore,” so memorably covered by Nina Simone, is one of Newman’s most affecting stories, looking at urban decay. “Rider in the Rain” was a cowboy-style song, with Frey, Souther and Don Henley joining in. Joe Walsh played slide guitar on the title track, sneering at juvenile delinquents prowling the City of Angels.  While no expanded edition of Newman’s most successful LP has yet emerged, Rhino did reissue it as a 5.1 DVD-Audio release in 2002, with a stunning soundscape mixed by George Massenburg.

Born Again (Reprise, 1979)

All too familiar in art of any kind is the artist’s frequent inability to follow up their biggest success. Such was the case with Newman and Born Again. The album kicks off with a paean to greed, “It’s Money That I Love,” with a N’awlins piano part to make Professor Longhair envious. It almost reaches those heights again with “The Story of a Rock & Roll Band,” in which Newman targets none other than Electric Light Orchestra. Having taken on politicians, rednecks and God Himself, it was clear that Newman knew no sacred cows. ELO was admittedly a bit of an easy target, but the parody-meets-pastiche of this song is spot-on. Unfortunately Born Again goes downhill from there.  The sometimes-vindictive humor and dead-serious satire are still there as are the elegant slice-of-life vignettes, but Newman sounds a bit tired.  He appeared on the cover painted in harlequin makeup; was he hiding from the success of Little Criminals?  He would take a few years off from the album grind and return with another atypical hit.

Trouble in Paradise (Reprise, 1983)

Like Little Criminals, Trouble in Paradise was definitely an album influenced by Los Angeles and as a result feels like a belated sequel to that 1977 effort. Titelman and Waronker enlisted Rickie Lee Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Warnes, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Don Henley and Bob Seger to provide support. The hit single was, of course, “I Love L.A.” which catalogs quite a few reasons one shouldn’t care much for the city (“Century Boulevard – we love it!  Victory Boulevard – we love it!  Santa Monica Boulevard – we love it!  Sixth Street – we love it!”). Newman croons without the slightest hint of condescension in his voice lines like “everybody’s very happy ‘cause the sun is shining all the time!” and the end result? The city, and indeed much of the country, embraced his ironic observations as totally sincere. “I Love L.A.” features vocal arrangements worthy of the name-checked Brian Wilson, and became Newman’s biggest hit since “Short People.” Its cover adorned by a beaming(!) Newman, the rest of the album is uniformly strong. “Real Emotional Girl” became one of Newman’s most covered songs, a tender ode to the girl of the title. “My Life is Good” turned the artist’s venom towards another easy target, that of yuppies caught up in the “me” decade, but his deadpan performance still inspires hearty laughter on each listen. A fictional “Randy Newman” is the coked-up protagonist of the song who encounters Bruce Springsteen, just about ready to abdicate his title of “The Boss” to our Mr. Newman. Clearly this was inspired stuff.  “Christmas in Cape Town” is a holiday song like no other, perhaps the most vicious song ever written with Christmas in its title, addressing Newman’s favorite theme this time via a tale of apartheid. Paul Simon drops by to contribute to “The Blues,” and just in case we’ve laughed too hard throughout, another curveball is thrown with the closing track, the elegiac “Song for the Dead,” which eloquently ruminates on war itself. Newman hadn’t stopped challenging his listeners, but he perfected the formula to do so in a current pop style. Like Little Criminals, Trouble deserves the expanded reissue treatment from Rhino. Such a reissue could include the demos known to exist, shorn of the final album’s big, glossy production.

Land of Dreams (Reprise, 1988)

In the eighties, Newman paid homage to his family lineage as he began concentrating on his film score work over his career as an album artist. Land of Dreams didn’t arrive until 1988, and it melodically bore the influences of the man who had written sweeping, dramatic scores for films such as Ragtime and The Natural. It also brought on board a number of new producers: Newman disciple (and guitar god) Mark Knopfler, ELO’s Jeff Lynne (ironic, no?) and the team of film composer James Newton Howard and Tommy LiPuma. Most significantly, Newman appeared to be writing biographical songs for the very first time, singing truly as himself and not in character. The opening trio of songs, “Dixie Flyer,” “New Orleans Wins the War” and “Four Eyes” gorgeously reflect on the composer’s youth in New Orleans, touching on those familiar themes of race and cruelty and with the genuine, quirky attention to detail for which Newman was already well-known. The rest of Land of Dreams is more of a mixed bag but not without its charms. “Falling in Love” is the Jeff Lynne-produced bid at a pop song, while “Masterman and Baby J” takes its digs at the rising rap phenomenon (“When we get to the mike, we’ll be number one/Even top D.M.C. and Run!”). It sounds dated today, but Newman did nail the attitude in a prescient manner. “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do” is his typically-barbed response to “We Are the World”: “All over the world sing along/I just want you to hurt like I do/Honest I do!” The abrasive “It’s Money That Matters” could be sung in a medley with “It’s Money That I Love,” again tackling the generation of “greed is good.” Newman’s most cherished themes were all on display here, but he hadn’t lost his passion for exploring them in this adventurous album. Rumors abounded of Rhino having prepared a deluxe reissue of this album which was never released, which included demos and outtakes. Unfortunately the label all but abandoned its Newman reissue program; would that Rhino Handmade would allow an expanded Land of Dreams to finally see the light of the day.

Randy Newman’s Faust (Reprise, 1995 – reissued Rhino, 2003)

Randy Newman’s music is often called theatrical, and his character writing is second-to-none. So it came as no surprise when he announced his intentions to write a full-blown musical score. His modern take on the Faust legend debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse in September 1995 under the direction of Rent’s Michael Greif. It subsequently travelled to the Goodman Theatre with renowned playwright David Mamet on board as new co-writer in September 1996. In reviewing that production, The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, still their chief theater critic today, called Newman’s score “a shimmering, multi-faceted gem” but found the production needed to be “refined and further thought through” if the show were to move to Broadway. Alas, it never did, and Newman turned his theatrical attention to a 2000 musical entitled The Education of Randy Newman, featuring a number of his back catalog hits. (This winter will see the California debut of Harps and Angels, another new musical theatre piece based around those famous songs.) But Faust lives on due to this star-studded concept recording, in which Newman enlisted James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt to bring his musical to life. Newman himself played the Devil, with Taylor a laid-back God and John an angry archangel! Clearly Faust wasn’t for everybody, blending Newman’s passion for satire with a classic morality play. With its variety of familiar voices, it doesn’t sound enough like a cast album or a rock album. So while the musical waits for a great new production to see it (and this accompanying album) take its place in a lofty position in Newman’s canon, it for now remains an interesting anomaly.  Rhino’s exciting 2003 reissue added an entire second disc of Newman’s demos, including many songs that didn’t make the cut on the initial CD. Its booklet includes an essay by Chris Willman in which Newman talks candidly about the challenges of creating a musical, from the initial workshops directed by Stephen Sondheim’s frequent collaborator James Lapine (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) to an encounter with Sondheim himself: “I don’t know whether he was exactly rooting for me.” Especially in this illuminating expanded edition, Faust remains ripe for rediscovery, and at the very least, it gave the world what is now one of Randy Newman’s best-loved and most-covered songs, “Feels Like Home.”

Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman (Reprise/Rhino, 1999)

By the time this lavish four-disc box set was released, no new proper studio albums had emerged from Randy Newman other than film soundtracks and a theatrical concept album in over a decade. Producer Gregg Geller pulled out all the stops, though, packing in 105 tracks including 25 previously unreleased ones plus rarities, album tracks and singles. Guilty was assembled as two discs of studio recordings, one of live material and one of film soundtrack work. As such, it’s the finest overview available of all facets of Newman: composer, lyricist, singer, orchestrator, social commentator. The accompanying 80-page booklet has predictably wry and hilarious liner notes by Newman himself along with essays from collaborators Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, as well as the esteemed journalist Timothy White, plus a full album discography. From “Rednecks” to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” it’s all here, and you shouldn’t feel at all guilty about buying the box set in question.

Bad Love (DreamWorks, 1999)

Pop albums became a sideline to Randy Newman in the years following Land of Dreams. Some 11 years passed between it and its proper follow-up, Bad Love. Abandoning longtime label Reprise for Lenny Waronker’s new DreamWorks label, Newman enlisted Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake to produce this eclectic collection. Thankfully, nobody had reason to fear that he had mellowed. Bad Love was another remarkably strong assemblage of songs, both satirical and heartfelt. In the former column came “The Great Nations of Europe,” an observation on imperialism to rival “Political Science.” Where did socialism go wrong?  Randy has the answers via a dialogue with Karl Marx in “The World Isn’t Fair.” He introduces one of his sleaziest, most rotten protagonists ever in the cringe-worthy but delicious “Shame.” Funniest of all is “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” in which the Newman lens is turned onto the world of aging rock stars, something nobody could have contemplated in the late 1970s: “Each record that I’m making is a record that I’ve made…just not as good!” Thankfully Randy remained an exception to his rule, and Bad Love even offered songs for Disneyphiles and filmgoers who might have just discovered his pop-song side.  “Every Time It Rains” and the yearning “I Miss You” (addressed to the ex-Mrs. Newman) both deserve to become standards, and neither has the faintest hint of Newman’s famed sardonic glance. Randy Newman had become a grand old man of classic pop, still on his own, sometimes-wicked terms.  Nearly another decade would pass, though, before Newman offered another album of new material.

The Best of Randy Newman (Rhino, 2001)

This release stands as the finest single-disc compilation of Newman’s career to contain his original recordings. Newman assembled it himself with David McLees, and contributes liner notes. Its 21 tracks take in everything from his debut album to the Toy Story soundtrack, right up through Bad Love.

The Randy Newman Songbook Volume 1 (Nonesuch, 2003)

Over the course of 18 songs, Randy Newman takes us – with voice and piano only – on a richly rewarding musical journey from 1966 to 1999, including three snippets of his film scores. This set allows the listener to realize in one sitting just how unique Newman’s contribution to American popular music is. Songbook takes in the Americana of “Louisiana 1927,” the romanticism of “Living Without You,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and “When She Loved Me,” the historical tapestry of “Sail Away” and “The Great Nations of Europe,” the character study of “Marie,” and the brutal satire of “It’s Money That I Love,” “Rednecks” and “Political Science.” All aspects of Randy Newman are here, and this album is recommended both as an introduction to Newman’s staggering oeuvre and as a summation of the man’s legacy for longtime fans.  Unfortunately, Volume 2 still hasn’t arrived.

Harps and Angels (Nonesuch, 2008)

Harps and Angels, Newman’s return to pop songwriting after a nearly decade-long absence, is a great Randy primer, the offering of a real renaissance (New)man, showing off the many crayons in his box of Crayolas. There are the talk/sung “piano shuffle” numbers familiar to the longtime Newman fans, the fully-orchestrated pieces in a theatrical vein, the ready-for-your-wedding love songs, and of course, the caustic, mordant vignettes like “Korean Parents,” a song which proves that Newman is as ready as ever to stir up trouble! I’m sure “Losing You” will join “Feels Like Home” (which actually was the wedding song at one I attended not too long ago) as a much-covered standard in Randy’s catalog, and if it’s true that these romantic songs aren’t labors of love for Mr. Newman, it sure doesn’t show. While “Feels Like Home” dates back to 1995’s Faust, it receives its first studio recording by its composer here. (And some ways, songs like these are throwbacks to the classics he penned in the 1960s as a staff songwriter at Metric, like the poignant “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” and “I’ve Been Wrong Before.”)

Newman name-checks – and humorously zings – Jackson Browne in the zany “A Piece of the Pie,” in which his orchestration says more than a lot of other artists’ lyrics do.  “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” which Newman first offered iTunes listeners as a harsh yet wry riposte to the George W. Bush presidency, receives a country twang in its revised version, as well as some tweaked (but still acidic) lyrics. Produced by Waronker and Froom, Harps is a fine bookend to 12 Songs. It’s more wizened, for sure, and as polished as that early record was raw. But it confirms Newman’s standing as one of the preeminent songwriters of this or any era, and as someone who still has a lot to say, even if he’s often reticent to do so via an album of songs. And if there’s not a follow-up at any point, I’m still glad we’ve got this piece of the pie from the guilty genius himself, Randy Newman.

Written by Joe Marchese

June 21, 2010 at 14:53

Posted in Features, Randy Newman, Reissues

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2 Responses

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  1. […] Second Disc’s coverage of Randy Newman’s reissues from last week got your catalogue correspondent thinking about the possibilities lately that Folds […]

  2. What a great piece! I didn’t even know there was a Volume 2 of his early songs; thanks for the tip.

    Most overlooked Newman song ever to receive an official recording: “Bad News From Home” from LAND OF DREAMS. It almost never gets mentioned in the reviews of that album, and I don’t get it. It’s so specific and evocative in its imagery, yet so ambiguous in its mood (sometimes I hear sadness; sometimes I hear something threatening); it’s a little masterpiece. Great arrangement, too.

    Todd Kay

    November 1, 2011 at 04:47

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