The Early Work of Dr. Sardonic
Arguably one of the smartest songwriters of the rock era, Randy Newman has several different, and seemingly contradictory, areas of expertise and claims to fame. The singer and pianist first attracted attention through hooky, dramatic pop songs that were picked up by a variety of artists. (He wrote "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore," one of the riveting moments on Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis, see p. 732.)
When he began making his own records, a different Newman emerged—that of a skeptical raconteur with a rapier wit. His songs of the early '70s skewer self-absorbed urban sophisticates, trailer park vixens, backwoods bigots, and short people, among many others; in each case, the withering insights come wrapped in a sound that's inviting and deceptively warm, almost affectionate. Then, in the 1980s, Newman followed three of his paternal uncles into the film music business, shelving satire in favor of squishy feel-good tunes. These were featured prominently in such blockbusters as Toy Story and A Bug's Life.
This, Newman's second album, is his most rocking, musically focused affair. Where his self-titled debut and a later concept album about life in the South, Good Old Boys, rely on elaborate orchestration, these tunes depend on rock-band chemistry and that mysterious elixir known as boogie. Running things from his piano, Newman turns out Tin Pan Alley melodies and easygoing New Orleans barrelhouse piano riffs, collapsing several generations of music into one sound. The guitarists (including Ry Cooder) respond with tangy blues asides that lead to the wrong side of the tracks, which, it turns out, is where Newman is most comfortable singing. (Or growling, as some have described it; Newman grew up in New Orleans, and can affect the sauntering demeanor of Louis Armstrong.) His delivery makes even potentially preposterous characterizations believable: Few pop songs have described loneliness with more precision than "If You Need Oil," the rambling thoughts of a bored gas station attendant.
Newman's songwriting strategies crystallize on Twelve Songs. If you only know his film music, don't miss these at once greasy and entertaining rambles, which are loaded with blunt portrayals of human nature and some of the most acidic satire ever tucked into three-minute pop songs.
Released: 1970, Reprise
Key Tracks: "Have You Seen My Baby?," "Mama Told Me Not to Come," "Lover's Prayer," "If You Need Oil."
Catalog Choice: Sail Away; Good Old Boys
Next Stop: Mose Allison: Allison Wonderland
After That: Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy
Book Pages: 549–550
#1 from Mark Davis, Pensacola, Florida - 06/09/2012 3:19
Been looking for this lp for a while; finally found it at the local flea market for three bucks. At first listen, at second listen, and so on….I don’t really like it. Maybe it will grow on me. I’ve read 1,000 Recordings numerous times and I’ve found so many musical gems from it. This one is not one of them and I’ll have to file with “John Barleycorn Must Die” in the back of my record collection.