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Vol. LXII, No. 35
 
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
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Record Review

A Few Words on the Return of Randy Newman

Stuart Mitchner

Novelist Philip Roth, who turned 75 in February, and singer-songwriter Randy Newman, who will be 65 in November, both take on aging and illness in their most recent creations. Roth assumes the guise of Nathan Zuckerman again in Exit Ghost, and given the demoralized Zuckerman’s struggles with impotence and incontinence, it’s not exactly a cheerful read. In the title track of Harps and Angels (Nonesuch $18.95), his first recording since 1999’s Bad Love, Newman assumes a role he’s played as often as Roth has played Zuckerman, except this time the nameless good old boy isn’t amusing us by venting his prejudices. He had a near-death experience and he’s telling us about it.

While Roth’s Zuckerman lives the life of a famous novelist with literary clout, the typical Randy Newman protagonist inhabits the blue-collar mainstream and talks as if he’s never been north of the Mason Dixon line. The guy in “Harps and Angels” could be sitting on the bar stool next to yours or else hunched over the piano like some poker-faced Hoagy Carmichael playing a snappy little shuffle while he tells you why he hasn’t been around lately (“Caught something made me so sick that I thought that I would die”). He’s definitely got your attention as he relates the grim details (“My knees begin to tremble, my heart begin to pound… I lost my equilibrium and fell face down on the ground”), and rather than backing off when he hints that there might be a moral to his story (“You boys know I’m not a religious man,/But I sent a prayer out just in case”), you’re drawn in. Maybe you can sense something special’s coming, and anyway, that cheerful shuffle is telling you that whatever the message is it won’t be too hard to take.

In fact, the message is a thing of beauty. Nothing corny, no M-G-M angelic choirs, nothing heavy like the Hollywood soundtracks composed by Newman’s uncles; the music of harps and angels soars and subsides, swift and simple as a choral brushstroke that leaves your bar room buddy glowing; he’s still radiant, remembering how “the street lit up like it was the middle of the day” as he “lay there quiet and listened to what the voice had to say.” What he hears is “full of anger from the Old Testament” and “full of love from the New one” and as he repeats the essence of the message (“When they lay you on the table/Better keep your business clean”), he sounds like a righteous minstrel out of Green Pastures and “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

When God says “Alright girls — we’re outtta here” and calls for a reprise of the wordless “harps and angels” hymn, Newman adds the touch that, for me, is the soul of the song. God, it seems, speaks French. “‘Encore! Encore!’ … ‘Tres bien! Encore!’” are the voice’s last words before the heavenly entourage disappears into the night. Recalling that unlikely wrinkle, the narrator still can’t seem to comprehend it: “He spoke French!” Where did it come from? Why French? And this isn’t legitimate, formal French. It’s “En-core” as Louis Armstrong might pronounce it in mid-scat. Since Newman grew up in New Orleans, maybe he’s showing off his French Quarter roots. But what makes the sudden, unexpected outburst of another language so suddenly, mysteriously touching in the context of this tale is that you seem to feel the composer surprising himself in the moment of creation, and how rare, to hear the sound of a songwriter’s surprise ring out clear and joyous. Newman knew he was on to something special. He set forth with a goodtime shuffle, found his muse and conquered her as sure as if he’d snatched one of those pretty angels and set her dancing on top of his piano. En-core! En-core!

A Complex Production

Lenny Waronker and Mitchell Froom’s formidable production evokes other Newman albums, as well as the Van Dyke Parks classic, Song Cycle, probably the consummate example of Waronker’s dense, complex weaving. The only drawback here would be if all the musical embellishment distracted listeners from Newman’s infectious piano playing, which lends a nice Nat Cole/Teddy Wilson early-1940s feel, a prewar flavor, to “Easy Street,” and meshes with the singing and talking on “Only a Girl” well enough to evoke a variation on the old Bird ‘n Diz metaphor, with the piano becoming “the other half of the singer’s heartbeat.”

A terrific chugging arrangement drives “Potholes,” which could be coming from the same character who bent your ear in “Harps and Angels.” When he suddenly sings out, “God bless the potholes down on memory lane,” it’s just the sort of bar stool Eureka you hear from someone who’s had one too many. The memory in question concerns a sandlot ball game the singer was pitching when he walked 14 batters in a row, broke down and cried, and left the field. Anyone who has ever played pre-Little League baseball will identify with this situation, and Randy Newman fans will be reminded of his incomparable song “Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Albert Einstein in America” on Little Criminals, and the verse that begins, “Americans dream of gypsies, I have found” and ends with the image of “little boys playing baseball in the rain.”

Like that other all-American Jewish-American Philip Roth, who once roamed the outfield in a Newark sandlot, Newman knows from experience why they call it the national pastime.

The Lesser Evil

Speaking of America, the song on this record that will cause (and has already caused) the most commotion appeared in print on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times in February 2007 (with one notable deletion concerning the three most conservative members of the Supreme Court). “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is from the man who gave us the Nixon era’s “Political Science” (“Let’s drop the big one and see what happens”), wherein Australia escapes nuclear destruction because “We don’t wanta hurt no kangaroos.” I’d recommend that before listening to the hyperkinetic arrangement of “A Few Words” on the album, you go to YouTube for the video that Newman made last year, where it’s just Randy and his piano (apparently filmed at home). According to this devastating demonstration of the “lesser evil” syndrome, sure, the Bush administration is “the worst we’ve ever had,” but hey, it’s not as bad as, say, the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler, and Stalin.

Heartbreakers

There are few songwriters who can write and sing a ballad as well as Randy Newman. He grabs you by the throat in both “Losing You” and “Feels Like Home,” one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve heard since Tom Waits’s “Martha.” When a singer with a gruff voice and a gift for timing and phrasing tries a little tenderness, all you can do is bite your lip and try not to make a fool of yourself.

Finally, if you like Harps and Angels and haven’t heard Newman’s previous album, Bad Love, you should seek it out immediately. The first song, “My Country,” is another heartbreaker, though it’s neither a ballad, nor a lament, but a novel in miniature, and if you know a little about the composer’s life, you’ll admire what he’s done here all the more; you’ll also understand the story behind the cover image of the little chair, the big chair, and the TV set on his second album, 12 Songs (1970). Bad Love has it all: laugh-out-loud virtuoso performances on “Shame” and “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It”); devastating pre-September 11 and pre-Bush/Cheney statements like “The Great Nations of Europe” (Columbus “shook hands with some Indians and soon they all were dead”); a brilliant letter in song to Karl Marx (“Oh Karl the world isn’t fair/It isn’t and never will be/They tried out your plan/It brought misery instead/If you’d seen how they worked it/You’d be glad that you were dead”). And, as always, you get love songs like “I Miss You” and “Every Time It Rains” that speak for every couple everywhere.

Randy Newman will be playing at Carnegie Hall on September 19. You can get Harps and Angels for $16.95 at the Record Exchange, which is where I found Bad Love.

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