Various Artists: Sail Away

Although some artists are labeled "best" with surprising ease and frequency, others need a bit of advocacy on their behalf. Here's a well-deserved salute to Randy Newman.

Various Artists

Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman

Label: Sugar Hill Records
US Release Date: 2006-05-09
UK Release Date: 2006-05-16

We humans have a grand propensity to rank works of art. Numbered lists and "the Oscar goes to" awards attempt to measure the immeasurability of creativity, innovation, depth, and genius, while at the same time untangling the intersecting and often time-bound lines of achievement, accessibility, commerce, and comprehension. And although some artists are labeled "best" with surprising ease and frequency, others need a bit of advocacy on their behalf. Townes Van Zandt, for example, has Steve Earle, who said, "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." And now Randy Newman has Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman. The liner notes of this collection from rootsy label Sugar Hill assert that "If you are reading these words and you write songs, know this much right upfront: You are not as good as Randy Newman."

Sail Away showcases the Sugar Hill roster and offers mainly acoustic interpretations of Newman's songs. Given the association of Americana music to the American South, it is apropos that the majority of covers come from Newman's album Good Old Boys. This 1974 collection addresses a few of the South's most steadfast archetypes: drinking, blue collar workers, rednecks, and racism. The album's songs are largely told from a first-person imperfect point of view -- with an emphasis on imperfect: these Good Old Boys ain't too smart, sober, or sane.

The aforementioned Steve Earle -- himself not one to skirt controversy -- fittingly chooses one of the most controversial songs in Newman's catalog, "Rednecks". Earle transforms Newman's sardonic ode to Southern ignorance and racism -- featuring the couplet "we're rednecks, rednecks…and we're keepin' the niggers down" -- into a rocked-up, gritty, and spiteful anthem.

But there are also tender and earnest hearts in these Good Old Boys. Earle plays guitar for his wife Allison Moorer, who is perfectly suited to offer a sultry, maudlin reading of "Marie" -- an elucidation of both love and apology told straight from an intoxicated heart: "I'm drunk right now baby / But I've got to be / Or I could never tell you / What you meant to me". "Birmingham" is a tribute to both the city and to the blue collar worker, and bluegrass traditionalists the Del McCoury Band nail it -- the banjo sounds much more texturally appropriate than Newman's original piano reading. An acoustic version of "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" by Sam Bush gives the song's pleading lyrics a sense of authenticity and sincerity. Overall, the lyrical content of Good Old Boys greatly succeeds within the bluegrass context.

Newman has a deft awareness of history and the keen insight of a social critic, which may be why some of his songs seem to contain a sense of eerie prophecy. "Louisiana 1927" returned to public consciousness in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made good on the chorus's threat: "Louisiana, Louisiana / They're tryin' to wash us away...". However, Sonny Landreth's B3-drenched, almost jaunty rendition missteps the song's core: the resignation of poor people to the more powerful forces of nature and politics.

Which brings us to the powerful force of American imperialism and "Political Science" -- it's a gem in Newman's body of work, which ponders if (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) the U.S. should "drop the big one now":

Every city the whole world round

Will just be another American town

Oh how peaceful it will be

We'll set everybody free

You wear a Japanese kimono

And there'll be Italian shoes for me…"

Two elements make the song nearly unbelievable: that it was written in 1972, and that, in 2006, the Bush White House seems intent on making it a reality. Sadly, Sail Away's rendition by the Duhks is pseudo-cabaret, with an over-abundance of scat singing that distracts and detracts from the song's lyrical strength.

Ultimately, Sail Away offers what Randy Newman deserves -- a tribute and the compliment of coverage. The songs are well-selected and finely interpreted, with only a few missteps. For either a Sugar Hill or Newman fan, this is a warm salutation to the witty, irony-filled, and unique world of this superb songwriter. And for songwriters, well, it's a bit of "the best" to inspire you.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.