Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2017 Sept-Oct Contents Rhythms 65
“Randy Newman is a national treasure,” observed Don
Henley recently in an interview with The Los Angeles
Times. “He’s a songwriter’s songwriter; a musician’s
musician. He’s also probably the most misunderstood and
underappreciated recording artist alive.”
Henley recalled how when he inducted Newman in to the
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 he noted that though
Newman had been born in Los Angeles he spent many
boyhood summers in New Orleans and that the Southern
melting pot had an impact on his music. That is absolutely
evident on Dark Matter – perhaps the most appropriately
titled Newman album ever! There is music hall, light opera,
touches of Stephen Foster and, occasionally rock ‘n’ roll.
This some of the most sophisticated music we are likely to
hear this year.
Dark Matter was recorded in Los Angeles and produced
by long-time Newman collaborator Lenny Waronker, along
with Mitchell Froom and David Boucher. The small studio
ensemble includes Matt Chamberlain on drums, David
Piltch on bass, Blake Mills on guitar with Mitchell Froom
offering additional keyboard. It is the perfect combination
for a recording where the voice and lyrics are foremost and
it can also handle Newman’s musical twists and turns.
I keep thinkIng of the album as the soundtrack to a film of
a novel such as John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy Of The
Dunces or the music to a hit Broadway show.
The album’s nine songs, which include the scathing ‘Putin’
released during the 2016 Presidential election campaign
and hardly likely to endear him to Mr Trump – cover the
full gamut of politics, religion, relatives, the blues and the
complexities of modern life.
Of course, humour has been one of the major elements of
Newman’s work since he began writing songs in the 1960s.
I recall seeing Newman at Jazz Fest performing ‘Rednecks’
(originally on the 1974 album Good Old Boys) and being
amazed that some people thought he was serious and booed
him! (They were definitely rednecks). Ironically, it was the
song ‘Short People’ that got him into the most trouble!
Nearly 50 years after his first album Newman has lost none
of his biting wit! It is guaranteed to have him barred from
the Christmas card list of both Trump and Putin and I
imagine Newman would be delighted at that result. If 2008's
Harps And Angels was, as claimed, a sardonic send-off to
the Bush era, Dark Matter is a frightening greeting to the
next four years.
The ‘cinematic’ scope of Newman’s music can be heard
from the opening song ‘The Great Debate’ which sprawls
across eight minutes and encapsulates almost everything
about what Newman does. One can only wonder what
the film clip might be like! It is almost a mini-opera in
execution and you can sense how Newman uses his skills as
a renowned composer of music for films to craft his songs
(in fact the word ‘song’ hardly seem adequate for some of
these marvelous stories).
‘Brothers,’ which follows, is ostensibly a song about the
Kennedys, but morphs into a tribute to Cuban music in a
style that is reminiscent of Van Dyke Parks. The operatic
‘Putin’ recalls ‘Political Science’ but is even more mocking
in tone (Vlad will not be impressed). The jaunty ‘It’s A
Jungle Out There’ might be a handbook for modern
times as he sings wryly, “You know what’s in the water that
you drink? well i do and it’s amazing.” It doesn’t get any
cheerier. ‘Sonny Boy’ is about the bluesman’s stolen identity.
Then there is the other side of Newman, who, like a lot of
comedians, uses his humour to disguise deeper thoughts –
the really dark matter. ‘On The Beach’ is paean to the idyllic
days of youth. ‘She Chose Me’ is gently self-deprecating.
‘Lost Without You,’ the story of a widower’s children visiting
their mother for the final time is even sadder than the title
suggests. ‘Wandering Boy’ finds Newman solo at the piano
singing about his prodigal son ("if you see him, lead him
toward the light”).
Like the superb new David Rawlings album Poor David’s
Almanack, Dark Matter seems like it has emerged from
another era – one where truly great songwriting still
Links Archive 2017 Jul-Aug 2017 Nov-Dec Navigation Previous Page Next Page