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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Harps and Angels

From the CD Shelf Dept.: Here’s a review I wrote in 2008, when the “Harps and Angels” was released – but it never ran, and I debut it here. Because, like me, Randy Newman is timeless.


“A FEW WORDS in Defense of Our Country” debuted as an internet presence, its lyrics trenchant enough to warrant placement as a NY Times Op-Ed piece. The song takes an easy swipe at the current administration, in a damned-with-faint-praise voice with which Randy Newman enthusiasts are familiar – and which allows him to savage the White House and the Supreme Court with freshness and unexpected humor.

“A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now too/But I defy you, anywhere in the world/To find me two Italians as tightass as the two Italians we got/And as for the brother/Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either.”

Newman never seems in much of a hurry to put out a record; this latest release, “Harps and Angels,” follows “Bad Love” by almost a decade. In the meantime, there have been several movie soundtrack albums and a newly recorded collection of older songs.

But the first notes of the CD’s title song puts us happily into that rarefied world of three-minute masterpieces for which the singer-songwriter is famous. And he’s still, spiritually at least, in the age of vinyl: the ten songs on this disc time out to 35 minutes.

Would you want more? Listening – I mean really listening – to this disc can be exhausting, what with all the sub-strata to discern. “Laugh and Be Happy” bounces with the infectiousness of a vintage song like “My Hat’s on the Side of My Head,” but turns out to deliver a roundhouse punch to those who boneheadedly decry immigration (and pays off the promise of the demo recorded many years earlier, released on a Rhino box set).

“Korean Parents” has a cringingly funny instrumental bed, pentatonic and with parallel fifths, to underscore its proposed cure for underachieving children – controversial enough to provoke an “explanation video” at the Nonesuch website – while “A Piece of the Pie” takes a surprising turn into Weill-and-Brecht-land as it tackles the American Dream in what’s the least characteristic track on this disc.

“Potholes,” on the other hand, is vintage Newman, a slow, jaunty beat underscoring what amounts to a sardonic recitation with catchy refrain, a blues with an extra kick of irony in the lyrics as the narrator defends an exuberant ambivalence towards the women in his life, and you’ll swear elements of it have to be straight autobiography.

No new Newman disc would be complete without love songs. Where “Potholes” is sardonic, “Losing You” is sincere and simple. And “Feels like Home,” brought over from Newman’s “Faust,” feels like it would have achieved hit-classic status a mere couple of decades ago, when such was awarded to intelligent, affecting songs.

Like every Newman album, it’s a small collection that packs a big punch, maintaining the quality level of “Bad Love,” his last collection of new originals, from a decade earlier. In between came a best-of collection, newly recorded, with Newman alone at his piano. Great to hear his classics again, but even better to savor new material in his one-of-a-kind voice and arrangements.

Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (Nonesuch)

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