Music

Randy Newman: Dark Matter

Photo: Pamela Springsteen (Nonesuch Records)

Randy Newman puts together a variety show with comedy, tragedy, and romance (and, yeah, some farce).


Randy Newman

Dark Matter

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2017-08-04
UK Release Date: 2017-08-04
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Randy Newman might spend his whole life sitting at a piano with CNN on in the background. He might spend it in a soundtrack factory. He might spend it walk down various streets while songs miraculously emanate from him. Wherever he's been, he's back with his first album in nearly a decade, Dark Matter. He maintains a steady Newman sound throughout, but he's essentially put together a variety show, blending some comedy, tragedy, and romance (and, yeah, some farce) on top of orchestral arrangements ready for the stage.

About 20 percent of the album's runtime comes from its bizarre and wonderful opening number, “The Great Debate”. Newman invites scientists, rationalists, and materialists into conversation with the religious and the spiritual to get “some answers to some complicated questions". The song is a show unto itself, with a shifting cast of characters to match a moving set of genres. The conversation seems to mock and welcome everything, comparing the scientific concept of dark matter to spiritual concerns (and punning on the phrase for the album's titular concerns). Eventually one of Newman's characters goes after both Newman and his primary narrator in calling the whole thing, accurately, a fabrication. If it weren't so well executed, the song would wear off as a novelty, but Newman's people, conversations, and arrangements synthesize into a scene you don't mind re-watching.

The album swirls around with a wide expanse of concerns, most put into precise character studies. “Brothers” takes a someone manic look at the Kennedys, following Celia Cruz sonically and geopolitically in a way that only Newman could pull off. “Putin” follows, providing a strange homage complete with the jazzy Putin Girls and Putin's dismissal of his namesake singers, and a Russian viewpoint of post-World War II history. “Sonny Boy”, rather than being a slanted take on a historical figure, is a straight(ish) take on a slanted story, narrating an imagined encounter between Sonny Boy Williamson I and the name-stealing Sonny Boy Williamson II.

As engaging as those tracks are (particularly “Putin” and “Sonny Boy”), Newman's best work comes with some of his more intimate stories. “On the Beach” (surprisingly not about Neil Young) could have come from Hollywood from 60 years ago, except for the freebasing Willie whose vagrancy remains amid the area's changes. Newman doesn't lean toward love songs, but “She Chose Me” movingly gives voice to a man surprised by his own beloved's acceptance of him as, presumably, a bright moon rises somewhere.

The strongest and darkest songwriting closes the disc with “Wandering Boy”. Newman's singer reflects on a child gone prodigal. The story hints at death but denies that potential storyline, instead releasing the grown child into the drift. The song crystallizes around the memory of the boy at a pool party at age five, “afraid of nothin' then” and “loved by everyone”. That sharp moment of joy and peace makes the father's questioning and untamed good wishes a poignant and lasting image.

That sort of matter gives the album its gravity, a centering point in the middle of the general burlesque. At this point in Newman's career, fans can expect the orchestration and the indirect storytelling, the strange viewpoints and unusual characters. That's what Newman does. And he's still doing it well, turning his vision into music with renewed energy.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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