Also known as Randy Newman Creates Something New Under The Sun, Randy Newman’s self-titled debut album was a promising beginning that didn’t quite capture all he would later prove capable of. Several songs here are overly orchestrated, while others are too bare, but even when not delivering much of a musical tune his lyrics are always worth paying attention to. Of course, that requires a little work, and his subtle attention to detail can get easily lost on impatient listeners, plus there’s that voice, which is technically terrible but which I find terribly affecting (in any event it’s an acquired taste to be sure). Obviously influenced by ragtime music, show tunes, Brill Building songsmithery, Bob Dylan, and the Lovin’ Spoonful, Newman mixes these ingredients into his own difficult to classify mix, though I suppose “singer-songwriter” will suffice if it’s a handy label you want. Anyway, this is a short album (under 30 minutes), with 11 concise songs, only two of which clock in at over 3-minutes, and those barely at that. I guess I can’t complain too much about this album’s brevity given how I always complain about albums being too long, and besides, Newman does by and large deliver quality if not quantity. The album’s best known song, “Love Story (You And Me),” is very orchestrated and soars on its “you and me” chorus; it takes real talent to tell a life story in 3:20, and lines like “we’ll have a kid, or maybe we’ll rent one, he’s got to be straight, we don’t want a bent one” shows off Newman’s warped sense of humor, which has gotten him into trouble (not everyone appreciates satire) but which sets him apart from nearly every other singer-songwriter. “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad,” “Living Without You,” and “Linda” are strong, straightforward “I’ve been dumped and I’m miserable” ballads (excellent lyric sample: “Linda, the carousel’s playing, but that merry-go-round, is bringing me down, ‘cause I remember what it meant to you”), while “So Long Dad” subtly documents the pathos of growing up and growing apart from dear old dad. “I Think He’s Hiding” shows Randy’s distrust of religion, and “Cowboy” is a Ray Davies worthy rant against industrialism, while the well-known “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” (later covered by Joe Cocker among others) includes vivid imagery in lines like “a pale dead moon in a sky streaked with gray.” Although most of these songs are ballads, with piano and strings being the primary instruments, occasionally buttressed by harmonica, harpsichord, trumpet, and flute, there are a few livelier numbers such as “Davy The Fat Boy,” another strong example of how Newman, with just a few words, can hold up a ferociously funny yet indelibly sad mirror up to ourselves. Still, though his lyrics were razor sharp from the start, musically he had a ways to go in terms of delivering more diversity and consistency, though there are moments of musical brilliance such as the brief carousel music interjection on “Linda.” As such, this album was more a flash of Newman’s enormous potential than a complete fulfillment of that potential, and though it has its fair share of memorable tunes it was more a harbinger of better things to come than a completely successful album on its own.
12 Songs (Reprise ‘70) Rating: A-
With oddball songs about arsonists, stalkers, bored and lonely gas station attendants, and flat-out weird happenings (“now Lucinda lies buried ‘neath the California sand, put under by the beach-cleaning man”), Randy Newman has long been a critic’s darling lingering outside of widespread mainstream recognition. With his sardonic wit and brilliant turns of phrase (example: “I been up so long that it looks like down to me,” soon stolen by Jim Morrison), it’s easy to see why critics like Robert Christgau (who called this "a perfect album") drooled over him. However, that said, only about 2/3 of these surprisingly bluesy songs are really memorable musically, despite Newman’s gently loping piano melodies and easy going drawl, not to mention some great guitar support from Ry Cooder and Clarence White. Highlights include the brassy New Orleans groove of “Have You Seen My Baby,” notably covered by the Flamin' Groovies on Teenage Head, “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” a catchy satire of a high society party which later became a #1 hit for Three Dog Night, a damn near definitive cover of “Underneath The Harlem Moon,” a classy supper club classic, “Yellow Man,” a deliberately stereotypical satire about Asian Americans (not that people weren't offended by it anyway), and “Old Kentucky Home,” a hilariously catchy hick baiting country rocker clearly influenced by the Lovin' Spoonful's "good time music." These are easily the albums most musically interesting tracks, though lyrically Newman hits a bulls-eye on all of these 12 Songs, some of which ("Let's Burn Down The Cornfield," "Suzanne") have undercurrents of menace to them (sample lyric: “we’ll take a walk in the park, I know a place where it’s good and dark”). The bluesy “Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield” and the lively "Lover's Prayer" are other winners (although the former song is hampered by barely audible vocals), while lyrics and music are rarely better matched than on the ultra sparse "If You Need Oil," which makes me feel lonely just listening to it. Granted, at times Newman is still a better read than listen, as his composing skills sometimes seem rudimentary when compared to his biting social commentary. Perhaps he drowned his songs in strings on his debut to make up for these shortcomings, but on the whole these comparatively stripped down tracks are a definite step up in class from those housed on his first album, boasting a wider range of sounds and more easily discernible individual song highlights. Indeed, at its best these 12 Songs are simply outstanding, though this engaging album ends all too soon since it only runs for a scant 29:51.
Sail Away (Reprise ‘72) Rating: A
Musically this was Newman's most confident and consistently accomplished collection to date, as it occupied something of a middle ground between the overly orchestrated debut and its stripped down successor (though it leaned closer towards his first album but with better songs). Indeed, the balance is just right this time, plus his singing has improved (though his voice is still often off key and has a certain detachment that some might find off putting) and his biting wit, mordant humor, and (perhaps most importantly) his honest respect for humanity are at an inspired peak. Sure, he comes across as a bit of a wiseass at times, but he's a really clever wiseass with a knack for creating interesting characters and stories, and he's become a sophisticated pop melodist with a flair for perfect accompaniment. Though here he often keeps things simple (starting with piano/vocals, as always), lush strings or decorative woodwinds and jaunty horns can also be found, usually at just the right time, as Newman knows how to masterfully set a tone. The classic title track kicks things off with a simple yet lovely string arrangement and typically ironic lyrics about a slave trader touting American "values" to his prospective victims, while “Lonely At The Top,” originally written for but turned down by Frank Sinatra, is a perfect lyrics-to-music match. Featuring his piano and understated, sad voice (matching lyric: “you’d think I’d be happy but I’m not”), a plucked banjo and horns give the cabaret-styled tune a lonely late night ambiance, and “He Gives All His Love” is perhaps an even better example of Newman's understated genius. At first it seems like a simple, elegant prayer to the Lord above, but, as per usual, on closer inspection things aren't quite as they originally seem ("He knows how hard we're trying, He hears the babies crying, He sees the old folks dying, and He gives us all his love"). "Last Night I Had A Dream" returns Randy to 12 Songs territory with a bluesy rocker featuring Ry Cooder on guitar, while “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” is pretty much its polar opposite, being a jaunty show tune with a much lighter tone; I love that shaky last note there at the end (again showing that having a "good" voice from a technical standpoint is overrated), and the overall effect is utterly charming. Continuing, "Old Man," another sad and lonely ballad, is arguably the best old man song since John Prine's "Hello In There" (fact of life: "don't cry old man, don't cry, everybody dies"), while Newman's humor comes to the fore on “Political Science” (“they all hate us anyhow, so let’s drop the big one now”), which is as apt today as it was then, if not more so, and “Memo To My Son” (“can’t I go nowhere without you?”), which any newfound father can relate to; plus it's last stanza makes it sweetly affecting as well as funny. Elsewhere, "Burn On" matches more downtrodden lyrics (about the burning of Cleveland's polluted Cuyahoga River) to another lush, show tune-y melody, while "Dayton, Ohio - 1903," much like his previous "Cowboy," sees Newman yearning for a simpler time, this time accompanied by a lazy yet lovely piano melody. Finally, the bluesy, lustful “You Can Leave Your Hat On” was again later covered by Joe Cocker, while “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind”) is another religious song, this one of the "scandalous" type that likely pissed off a lot of people (unlike “He Gives All His Love,” there's no mistaking his mocking, mirthful message this time). Still, though this one and maybe one or two others are overly obvious and pick on easy targets, its slow, sensuous piano melody is first rate, as is the album overall, and though his work sometimes doesn’t generate enough excitement to satiate my rock 'n' roll heart, this is music that really makes you think. Fortunately, it’s also music you can consistently hum along to, as Newman joins other maverick artists such as Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Richard Thompson in giving the term "singer-songwriter" a good name.
Good Old Boys (Reprise ‘74) Rating: A
Newman’s second masterpiece in a row is a fascinating, funny 33-minute song cycle about the American South. Newman plays up stereotypes (“we got no-necked oilmen from Texas, and good ol' boys from Tennessee, and college men from L.S.U., went in dumb, come out dumb too”) but shows compassion as well as his customary biting sarcasm, and his genius is in how his songs can have multiple meanings; sometimes you simply don’t know whether to take him seriously or not, but you can still appreciate his vibrant storytelling skills, his flawed (often drunk) characters, and his consistently accomplished music. He brings cities such as Birmingham and New Orleans vividly to life, he lets you know which politicians he likes (Huey P. Long, whose “Every Man A King” he covers; only a minute long, the lighthearted sing along breaks up the album nicely) and hates (Nixon), and he writes catchy choruses (“we’re bringing the niggers down”) that would offend people if you sang it in public (despite the fact that the word "nigga" appears in seemingly every other rap song, which apparently is ok...). That song, “Rednecks,” is one of the album’s best known and it kicks the album off by skewering the South (and the North but in a more subtle way), while “Birmingham” has a nice, singably laid-back melody. “Marie,” a sentimental love song from a drunk, is one of Newman’s most endearing love songs, and is one of several slow piano ballads with lush string arrangements, the other standout in that style being “Louisiana 1927,” which seems so prescient and ahead of its time post Hurricane Katrina as to make Newman seem clairvoyant. Needless to say, the aftermath of that recent tragedy gives this song an added emotional resonance, but as usual Newman provides some lighter respites throughout the album as well. Nixon may have been an easy target, but Newman nevertheless nails him on “Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man),” whose jaunty horns add a touch of levity, while “Kingfish” (reputedly also a tribute to Long) has that feel good vibe that's unique to New Orleans. “Naked Man” is a nice groovy pop rocker that tells an amusing story, and Ry Cooder again adds a touch of grit to “Back On My Feet Again,” which delivers a lively, singable chorus. Sure, Newman can be a bit wordy and not all of his melodies sink in right away, plus there are times when I wish that there was a Cliff Notes that told me what his songs are really about. But then I realize that guessing is part of the fun, and this was arguably his most consistent and cohesive set of songs to date. Newman will never be the greatest singer or the most exciting artist around, but by and large the music here is as richly varied as the cast of characters he so cunningly dissects, making this an album that can be returned to repeatedly, as you get something different and special every time.
Little Criminals (Reprise ‘77) Rating: B+
After the twin peaks of Sail Away and Good Old Boys, Little Criminals was bound to be a little disappointing, especially after a long three year wait. It is, but this is still a very good album, even if it lacks the standout songs or thematic brilliance of its immediate predecessors. Of course, the song that everybody remembers this album for, Newman's most famous song (and something of an albatross), is "Short People," a fluke #2 novelty hit whose satirical lyrics were of course misunderstood; many short statured people resent Newman 'till this very day, even if few would deny that it's one of his catchiest compositions. Elsewhere, the album is more obviously mid-'70s L.A. than previous efforts, with the likes of Jim Keltner, Waddy Wachtel, J.D. Souther, and members of The Eagles lending a helping hand, and there's more electric guitar as well. Most of the songs are still piano-based, though, with typically tasty string and/or horn accoutrements, but overall the songs don't quite grab hold like Newman's best work does. Still, his various characters (like the Fat Man) and stories are still worth paying attention to, and the musical details aren't without their own simple, singular pleasures, such as the cool low-key percussion on "Jolly Coppers On Parade" and "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation Of Albert Einstein In America" (and who but Newman would think of such a song title?). We get sad ballads ("Texas Girl At The Funeral Of Her Father"), more mournful mood pieces ("In Germany Before The War"), this one with a seemingly chilling ending ("we lie beneath the autumn sky, my little golden girl and I, and she lies very still"), another affecting old man song ("Old Man On The Farm") which shows Newman to be an old soul even back then (he was only in his mid-30s), and a poignant pledge of devotion ("I'll Be Home," an inferior version of which originally had appeared on 1971's Randy Newman Live). Not every song is top tier Newman, in fact few are, but the catchy title track (about a junkie) and "Baltimore" (arguably the album's second most singable melody, though he likes Baltimore much less than Birmingham!) are other highlights that are among my favorite songs here (along with "Short People," "You Can’t Fool The Fat Man," "Jolly Coppers On Parade," "In Germany Before The War," and "I'll Be Home"), and The Eagles-like country rock of "Rider In The Rain" grew on me over time as well, despite its overly slick veneer, which somewhat mars the overall album in general. Still, Newman is such an accomplished, clever craftsman that there's much to like here, even if this is clearly a notch below his recent work. P.S. Perhaps I’ll review additional albums eventually, but Newman has released proper singer-songwriter albums infrequently as his presumably more lucrative outlet composing movie soundtracks likely occupies most of his time.
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