Randy Newman has left elephant-sized footprints in the pantheon of American music for close to 40 years. It seems to be the family industry. The Newman family has been heavy hitters in the film scoring world since the inception of the genre, collectively composing music for hundreds, if not thousands of movies.
Randy flirted with that world as early as 1971, writing for Norman Lear, but the success of his solo material kept him from the stage and screen until the 80s when he scored the film Ragtime and co-wrote much of the material for The Three Amigos. He released solo albums concurrently with his scoring fare, but they have taken a back burner to film in recent years. The shift in priorities seems to have worked well for him, as Newman has composed for many Pixar releases, even winning an Oscar in 2001 for his theme song to Monsters Inc. Lately, he has expanded his theatrical scope to the stage, adapting Faust (the Goethe one) into a musical and released an an amazing solo piano retrospective of his work called The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1.
For fans that haven't been bitten by the theater or soundtrack bug, the solo retrospective only heightened the anticipation for a new solo record. Bad Love was released way back in 1999 and while the theatrical vagaries are entertaining, I'd like a bit of the raw uncut. It would appear that the Newman family might look down on the simplicity of pop-oriented music. In the most recent issue of Mojo, Randy shares a great anecdote about his Uncle Lionel considering Burt Bacharach's work to be rehashed third oboe parts. I'm not 100% sure what that even means, but I know snark when I see it, and that is one of the best snarky comments ever. Evidently, when you have eleven Academy Award nominations, there is no need to hold your tongue. I sure wouldn't.
Harps and Angels (Nonesuch) splits the difference between the two, pairing stripped down piano songs with more orchestrally-driven pieces. Newman is not a man to hold his tongue, especially when he can jam it right through his cheek. Tunes like Laugh And Be Happy or A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country hearken back to classically acerbic Newman fare like Political Science. A Few Words was released in MP3 form late in 2007 and got a fair bit of attention, even if most of the preaching was to the converted. I don't see Newman crossing over this late in his career, but his songs are starting to be recognized by the younger generation. Dave Bazan of Pedro The Lion has been covering Political Science in recent years and the sentiments hold just as true thirty years down the line, so maybe we'll get lucky.
While it keeps the lights on at the Newman house, it would be a shame to have one of America's finest songwriters confined to a world of Pixar adaptations. Newman has fought Epstein-Barr and spinal issues in recent years and these harbingers of mortality seem to have prompted a broader scope in the material on Harps And Angels. I personally enjoy the more New Orleans inflected stuff like Only A Girl, but the closing Feels Like Home reinterprets the song from in a solo arrangement that will break your heart at twenty paces. It holds its own with classic Newman fare like Marie or Real Emotional Girl and makes me want to hear more of his soundtrack work untarted up with string parts and the like. Here's hoping that Volume 2 of the Newman Songbook comes soon. In the meantime, pick up Harps And Angels here or on I-tunes and check the links below.
Official Randy Newman website
Interview and album stream