Album Review: Randy Newman – Harps & Angels

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Anybody who only knows Randy Newman as a Family Guy joke or the guy who sings the music from Toy Story happen to be sorely uninformed. Harps and Angels, Newman’s new album, is a return to form, which is of course, amazing satire.

Randy Newman is a superb music writer. He writes grandiose piano numbers that work as soundtracks to little stories. This is why he is so popular in the animated creature business. They need music to tell little, humorous stories that won’t upset anyone, and piano hasn’t upset anyone in years. The lyrics, though, are where Newman has always been different. Anyone familiar with Newman’s old work will be happy he has returned to some of his biting satire.

Satire is an oft-misunderstood comedic style. People still think the film Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) is a great work of drama. Take a closer look at the film! Nothing but a satire. Such a genre is actually hard to do. When it’s too dark, it’s sad and dramatic, and when it’s too light, it comes off as lame parody. Also, very few people like feeling dumb, and satire and irony tend to make some people feel that way. The best course of action is to accept whatever mental capacities you possess and get down with some Randy Newman.

Harps and Angels upholds the fine tradition of the man’s songwriting. He creates a fictional character and writes songs from their perspective. It’s an easy setup and other than the few retreads of older songs, this new album provides some of the better Randy Newman work since 1972’s Political Science.

The title track starts off the album with a very light and seemingly traditional jazz piano number, then there’s some quality choral singing in the bulk of the middle of the song. The song speaks of sending out some prayers in case you are dying because, hey, “you never know.”  Easily the most challenging track, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is a real standout. The song combines jazz and country to make a song vaguely familiar, at least musically. “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 tightass as the two Italians we got/And as for the brother/Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either.” Now imagine Randy Newman singing that and you can’t help but find it funny.

While “A Few Words…” is strong, “A Piece of the Pie” seems to be the strongest album on the track, if not the ballsiest for the blatant callouts of Jackson Browne, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Bono. With almost a circus/carnival atmosphere, “A Piece of the Pie” builds a very tense feeling in the listener until they hear the chorus of deep voiced men defending John Cougar, at which point a smile is inevitable. Case in point, the verse: “There’s a famous saying someone famous said/ As General Motors goes so go we all/Johnny Cougar’s singing it’s their country now/He’ll be singing for Toyota by the fall.” And then the chorus: “Bono’s off in Africa – he’s never around/The country turns its lonely eyes to who?/Jackson Browne/Jackson Browne/Jackson Browne.”

Two of the other standout tracks are “Korean Parents” and “Only a Girl.” “Korean Parents” tells a sad story of the American education system and all the distractions at home making it hard for kids to stay focused. Newman has the answer: buy Korean parents for the youth of America. Musically, the song features some outstanding horn work, in addition to the expected “sounds of the Orient” spotted throughout the song. “Only a Girl” is one of the lighter spots on the album. Easily the most upbeat of the selection available, it could draw comparison to the upbeat melody in “I Love L.A.”  Lyrically, the song deals with a pretty girl who is peculiar, wears black, and clearly lives in Los Angeles. Sadly, the singer realizes she only loves him for the money, seconds from the ending.

Overall, this is a standout album from one of America’s better satirists and one of America’s better piano players. Featuring a few standout tracks, a very listenable album for anyone who enjoys humor or piano, and a return to edge for an old man, Harps and Angeles is deserving of all the press it has already received and any future accolades. Some might not be able to handle a full album of grandiose piano songs, but anyone not familiar with Randy Newman’s work outside of Toy Story should at least check out a few of the tracks.

By the way, stop imagining those lyrics above being sung by an anthropomorphic pencil and his wacky sidekick who happens to be a tuna sandwich, it only takes away from Randy Newman’s best work in years.

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Bonus mp3s:
“Old Man On The Farm” (Randy Newman) by Harvey Danger
“Marie” (Randy Newman) by The Morning Benders