That’s why I love Randy Newman: A brief appreciation

Randy Newman‘s successful career as a composer of film scores has been a double-edged sword. To young people, he is the guy with the nasal voice who sang "You’ve Got a Friend in Me" for Toy Story 16 years ago (!). To an older audience the edgy L.A. songwriter and college campus favorite who happened to score films betrayed the razor-sharp wit of his early career with high-profile forays into making cute music—see above—but never abandoning that wit.

Look beyond it for a minute. This member of the Toy Story generation fell in love with Randy Newman while listening to an album recorded by Harry Nilsson, aptly titled Nilsson Sings Newman and released in 1970. Perhaps the best track from that song is a blissful paean to the simple life, "Dayton, Ohio – 1903" that starts with a dark, jazzy piano pulse that unravels into a trickling descent—the melody relaxes as the listener does. By the time Nilsson sings, the melody has coolly unfurled: "Would you like to come over for tea with the missus and me?," he sings, and Newman (who played piano for the record) breaks into a pacifying I-IV, a familiar chorus. And we’re home.

Etta James, who cut her teeth as a gospel artist, mined Newman’s sometimes bleak power in a bloodthirsty cover of "God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)," in which a ravaged human population asks God why He’s so damn mean, to which God responds: "You really need me/That’s why I love mankind." Ouch.

You won’t hear a Big Idea song like that on rock radio these days. As ur-rock critic Robert Christgau said of Newman’s second album, 12 Songs, "He can get away with the kind of calculated effects that destroy more straightforward meaning-mongers," calling it a "perfect album." Though he’s occasionally lost his way (his Faust musical was a flop), Newman hasn’t lost his knack for pushing buttons in song. His most recent solo record, 2008’s Harps and Angels featured a song called "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"—the lyrics to which were published as an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

It appears that this tour is in support of the forthcoming Randy Newman Songbook, Volume 2, which features "a fresh look at both classic and more recent work in new solo recordings of his celebrated songs." From recent YouTube videos, as well as "A Few Words…," Newman now seems to favor the talking/singing that guys like Dylan and Lou Reed do. No matter how he says it, it will be well worth having a listen. That’s why I love Randy Newman.

Tickets are still available for tonight’s 8pm Randy Newman show at The Paramount Theater.

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