Largo, July 23, 2008
Not one of Randy Newman's largest group of fans is here tonight. The Largo is filled with the casually rich, wearing baseball hats and chinos, slightly overweight music execs who made their bones when such a title meant something, movie folks, actors, wives…
But in an odd turn of events over the past decade, and thanks to one of those movie guys, John Lasseter, Randy Newman's average fan is now 10 years old. Forget about Sail Away and Good Old Boys. He's the guy who writes the music for Pixar's Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and so on.
Did you know Newman got his first ever platinum album last year? Forty years into his recording career and it was for Cars, which, let's face it, is the worst of Pixar's movies. A Faustian deal indeed.
Meanwhile, his albums of forlorn characters, biting satire and love songs have come less and less often. We've given Randy Newman quite a case of negative reinforcement.
But tonight, as Newman says, walking on stage to great applause, “These are new songs, 'cuz this is a new album.” Harps and Angels, just his third studio album in twenty years, is about as fine a return to form as any (old) Newman fan could hope for. Dressed in a blue short sleeve shirt and jeans, seated at a Steinway, Newman and his band run through all ten songs from Harps and Angels in order, for a future NPR broadcast (It will eventually be available here).
The title-track opener is a first person account of a near-death experience, a precious second chance given with the warning to “keep your business clean” or next time it'll be pitchforks. His crack band of Mitchell Froom, Joey Waronker, George Dearing and Bob Glaub replace the album's lush string arrangements with some more down to earth tones that the song benefits from.
Newman follows it up with “Losing You,” a beautiful string-laden ballad on the record, here played with just voice and piano. It's a tear-jerker, a love song for the divorced. Maybe Tom Waits wrote something as sad and lovely when he was young. This song will be covered by respect-seeking singers for decades to come, but Newman's own cracked voice sounds just perfect here.
Then of course there's the angry songs. This is after all, Newman's only album of the Bush administration, and it's “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” which gets all of us laughing and clapping. The song originally appeared on the New York Times Op-Ed page last January, where it caused a small stir, but they excised a verse about the Supreme Court, for reasons you might understand:
You know it pisses me off a little
That this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me
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 tight-ass as the two Italians we got
And as for the brother…
Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either.
Put that one alongside the hilarious “Korean Parents” with its hokey “Oriental” melody and one can only hope that a few folks with nothing better to do will complain to Wal-Mart and get the album pulled, which might get Harps and Angels enough attention that some people will buy it. Not in Cars numbers of course. The 10 year-olds will probably sit this one out.
It was a rare chance to see Newman in such an intimate setting; rarer still to hear a whole album's worth of new material like this. But of course, we would like to hear just a few of the old tunes. He obliges. “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” “Louisiana 1927,” and “The World Isn't Fair” from Newman's overlooked 1999 Bad Love get played as an encore. The last one was preceded by a couple of excellent stories about his family, one of which ended with his 15 year-old daughter staring him down and telling him, “You're not that famous.” Newman's five children were all in the audience tonight, but he told us, “I'd sell out my own mother when I'm up here.” With that we got a nice tight version of “I Love L.A.,” and then the moguls, the actors and I poured out on to La Cienega and the warm glow of the Beverly Center and the strip club across the street. We really do love it, you know.
Randy Newman's Harps and Angels is released August 5.