When you think about it, it must be pretty nice to be Randy Newman. He’s been a critical darling for almost 50 years, he cranks out terrific film scores when he’s not making traditional pop/rock albums, and he has the respect of not only his fans, but his fans’ children (and grandchildren) via the songs he wrote for Pixar movies. In short, his respect spans decades and generations.
The casual fan, unfortunately, may very well be unfamiliar with his work beyond the songs that everyone knows: “Short People”, “I Love L.A.”, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. But that’s OK, Newman and his current label, the artist-friendly Nonesuch Records, began releasing a multi-volume Songbook series back in 2003. The concept was refreshingly simple: Newman re-recording his own songs with just his voice and a piano. A second volume was released in 2011, and a third volume is now out. To sweeten the deal, all three volumes have also just been released in a four-LP vinyl box set.
Four records. Fifty-six tracks. That’s an awful lot to take in. Needless to say, Newman deserves this lavish treatment. It works on a variety of levels. It’s great for fans familiar with the original recordings to hear the songs in this sparse, elegant setting. It’s also an excellent opportunity for Newman neophytes to discover these wonderful compositions uncluttered.
Where to begin? The opening track, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” certainly kicks off the set in a regal, moving fashion. Newman moves through the complex chords while keeping his voice in a quiet, low register, and while the inventive orchestrations of the original recording are missed, it’s a nice change of pace to hear the song reinterpreted this way.
Newman long ago perfected the art of the unreliable narrator — singing a song from the point of view of a despicable, untrustworthy character — and “Rednecks” is perhaps one of the best of many examples. The title character shows support for a staunch segregationist’s TV appearance (“Last night I saw Lester Maddox on the TV / With some smart-ass New York Jew”) with plenty of lines that are unprintable on this website, although the first half of the chorus is fair game: “We’re rednecks / We’re rednecks / We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.” Typically for Newman, the bile in the lyrics is wonderfully paired with an upbeat, rollicking boogie-woogie piano performance. “Sail Away” is another example of an evil character matched up with peerless musical accompaniment: an American slave trader talks potential African natives into climbing aboard his ship to a land where “every man is free,” backed by a stately gospel piano arrangement.
Like most of pop music’s most gifted songwriters, Newman’s work transcends time, and the subject matter often continues to ring true decades later: The naked xenophobia of “Political Science” in particular seems oddly fitting given 2016’s general election circus. “They all hate us anyhow / So let’s drop the big one now” — the song could easily be retrofitted for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and few would notice.
Hearing Newman compositions made famous by other, far different artists works surprisingly well in this “unplugged” setting — “Mama Told Me Not to Come”, popularized by Three Dog Night, rolls along beautifully, sounding like a brief glimmer in an otherwise depressing hotel piano bar, and the striptease swagger of “You Can Leave Your Hat On” deviates from the gritty, soulful versions by Joe Cocker and Tom Jones, allowing the listener to cringe at the narrator’s sad tale of a failed ladies’ man.
Newman also reinterprets “When She Loved Me”, his heartstring-tugging Toy Story 2 ballad originally sung by Sarah McLachlan, and simply records it as a brief instrumental. It’s a smart move – it allows the listener to hear the sad, aching melody unadorned. Other film score tracks get similar treatment: his themes from “Avalon” and “Ragtime” sound lovely here and work well as instrumental interludes.
While sarcasm, satire and despicable characters have long been Newman’s bread and butter, there are plenty of tales of romance and nostalgia — “Feels Like Home” is probably the closest Newman’s ever come to composing a bona fide wedding slow dance number. “Same Girl” is a touching, fragile ballad that recalls the minor-key tone poems of Swordfishtrombones-era Tom Waits. “Dayton, Ohio – 1903” is one of the set’s most surprisingly moving gems, with Newman navigating the classic number’s sophisticated major seventh chords with gentle ease.
Newman is a master at covering the widest spectrum of musical emotions. It’s easy to shed a tear at the uncomplicated tale of heartbreak in “Losing You” while later laughing at the comic sociopolitical observations of “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” (a song that actually had me laughing out loud on the subway while it was on my headphones, to the bewilderment of my fellow commuters). But he’s also technically brilliant, as a pianist and orchestral arranger. To take his many gifts for granted is a grave mistake, and this box set goes a long way in giving Randy Newman his due. Like I said, it’s an awful lot of music. But it’s important, enriching, and worth every penny.