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The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1

Randy Newman

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Album Review

Between 1977 and 1988, Randy Newman seemed bound and determined to prove he could be a pop star, which is no small task when your voice is froggy, wear glasses, and your favorite themes are racism and insensitivity. While Newman managed to make some very good albums during that span of time — most notably 1983's Trouble in Paradise — his desire to wrap a harsh message in a pretty package didn't always serve his art especially well, with one side seemingly compromising the other. But Newman's late-career success as a composer of film scores (complete with an Oscar) seems to have satiated his desire for fame and fortune, and he's been willing to take on a less cluttered approach in his own recordings. 1999's Bad Love was the leanest and most direct Newman album since Sail Away in 1972, and in 2003 he revisited his back catalog with The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1. Here, Newman sits at the piano and, with no other accompaniment, sings 15 songs he wrote between 1966 and 1999 (and plays short extracts from three his film scores), and the simplicity of this presentation makes this a superb showcase for the intelligence, grace, and craft of Newman's songs. There's plenty of venom in Newman's humor, but more than a little compassion as well, and he doesn't pick easy or simple targets. Here Newman does a masterful job of portraying his rogues' gallery, from a cynical God ("God's Song [That's Why I Love Mankind]") and a pathetic would-be ladies' man ("You Can Leave Your Hat On") to a slave trader looking to convince Africans to give up their freedom ("Sail Away") and a casually genocidal world leader ("Political Science"), and in each performance he makes his characters sound sadly, hilariously human and easily recognizable. And while there's little flash in Newman's piano style, the easy elegance and understated New Orleans roll of his touch at the keyboard is at once beautifully subtle and subtly beautiful. There isn't much to The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 — just a guy playing piano and singing his songs — but it's just enough to make you laugh, wince, and almost cry; it's the work of one of the few people in pop music who merits the description "genius," and it's a remarkable summation of his singular talent.

Biography

Born: 28 November 1943 in Los Angeles, CA

Genre: Soundtrack

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Randy Newman was an anomaly among early-'70s singer/songwriters. Though he was slightly influenced by Bob Dylan, his music owed more to New Orleans R&B and traditional pop than folk. Newman developed an idiosyncratic style that alternated between sweeping, cinematic pop and rolling R&B, which were tied together by his nasty sense of humor. Where his peers concentrated on confessional songwriting, Newman drew characters, creating a world filled with misfits, outcasts, charlatans, and con men....
Full Bio