Randy Newman: Bad Love
by George Graham
(Dreamworks 50115 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/9/99)
Randy Newman is one of the more interesting and durable figures on the music scene. Throughout his more than thirty-year career, he has been both the sardonic singer-songwriter with a cult following and the successful film composer. One of this first albums was of music from the TV series "Peyton Place" in 1965. But as a singer-songwriter, he emerged early as a critics' favorite, and he became one of those performers who was kept on at Warner Bros. Records because he was considered a significant artist, despite the fact that he didn't sell many records. That was back in the days when record companies would do that, instead of dropping an artist if they didn't go multi-platinum in the first month.
In 1977 when Newman had the closest thing to a hit of his recording career. His song Short People, was a satire on the silliness of discrimination, but a lot of people took the wrong way, which in some ways is typical of his career. Playing piano, rather than guitar, and drawing on his orchestral experience, Newman created an infrequent series of solo albums marked by wit, often from a jaundiced standpoint, with surprisingly attractive melodies, as sung in his notoriously narrow vocal range. Now Newman is out with the eleventh album of his songs, called Bad Love.
Randy Newman is the nephew of the late film composer Alfred Newman, who created the music for many films in Hollywood's golden era. His uncle was a big influence, though Randy Newman maintains that music was always work for him, not a source of refuge. But once at the piano with pencil and paper, Newman has directed his attentions to two facets -- creating film music and writing his distinctive songs. Though his albums of songs have been fairly infrequent, he has composed the scores for at least 14 films and television specials, including the movies "Ragtime," "Maverick," and the two Disney "Toy Story" films. He also created songs for the hit film "Forrest Gump."
His own songwriting reflects quite a different facet. In his songs, he has created a series of characters, many of them quite flawed. In that respect, his new CD Bad Love is a classic Randy Newman recording, imbued more characters you either feel sorry for or detest, plus some wonderfully theatrical and cinematic accompaniment. On his last album, Newman created a kind of rock-opera adaptation -- with a suitably big cast -- of the classic story of Faust. On Bad Love, Newman returns to the subject of trading morality for the short term material, which has been a recurring theme in his writing, but with smaller vignettes this time. In that respect, the album has some of Newman's best writing in years. Again the character studies are wonderfully developed, and he throws in a little history as well.
This album's choice of producers was odd and seemingly incompatible: Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who are known for their dark, clangorous alternative-rock influenced style, with people like Suzanne Vega, who is Froom's wife. While Froom and Blake's quirky style may have been interesting for a more contemporary artists, their sound has quickly grown stale, and was the reason for disappointing albums from Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt. Newman said that he enjoyed working with Froom in the studio, and Froom and Blake did scale back some on their sonic eccentricities, but it's still a bad match between artist and producers. Much of the subtlety of Newman's arrangements is lost though appropriate recording techniques. On Bad Love, Newman's songs succeed despite the CD's production.
On this album, Newman explores some topics he has touched on before, including the nostalgia expressed in the opening piece, My Country, where the initial longing for the old days begins to sound like intolerance toward the end. <<>>
Another classic Newmanesque character is the subject of the song Shame. The old-fashioned swing-influenced arrangement provides a dichotomy with the song's seemingly lecherous protagonist... <<>> who even gets into an argument with the background singers. <<>>
Newman named the album Bad Love since less-then-perfect relationships are a common theme. Every Time It Rains is a more conventional love song, or rather a song of love lost. <<>>
In the past, Newman has taken up historical characters and situations. He applies his jaundiced eye to European colonization and conquest of the New World on the march-like song The Great Nations of Europe. Newman's skill as an orchestrator makes this a highlight of the album. <<>>
In the same vein is The World Isn't Fair which speculates on bringing Karl Marx into the present day. In an interview, Newman joked that musically the whole song sounds like one long introduction to a non-existent piece. <<>>
Randy Newman likes to say that his songs are not autobiographical. There are two tracks that some might be inclined to apply to the songwriter. One is I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It), the story of an over-the-hill pop star, which is given the album's rockiest musical setting. <<>>
Likewise from the perspective of an artist without a lot of self-confidence is I Want Everyone to Like Me, also with a nostalgic swing-influenced arrangement. <<>>
Perhaps the biggest surprise on Bad Love is the country-styled song Big Hat, No Cattle with a guest backing vocal appearance by Herb Pederson. The song's thesis is the confession of the a habitual liar. <<>>
Perhaps the closest thing to a lyrically normal love song is The One You Love, but providing a counterpoint is the eclectic orchestral arrangement with the backing singers. <<>>
Randy Newman's new CD Bad Love is a great new collection of songs from one of the more complicated and multi-faceted figures on the scene. Again, he writes from a decidedly sardonic viewpoint, creating some characters that you love to hate, but who somehow in the end, can teach us lessons. He also takes on history and brings his typically jaundiced view to that, and to the perennial subject of personal relationships. His musical orchestrations on the album are brilliant, and really enhance the songs, sometimes by contrasting with the lyrics, and almost always provide an odd counterpoint to Newman's famously limited vocal prowess. The result is a must-have recording for confirmed Randy Newman fans, and those looking for the quirkier side of the singer-songwriter genre.
Sonically, the album is a mess. Chad Blake's engineering and mixing is completely inappropriate for this kind of orchestra-laden setting. The mix is heavily compressed and has an in-your-face sound that destroys the dynamics of the orchestral arrangements, and the ebb and flow of Newman's songs. The instruments all sound disjointed and unconnected with each other, and Blake applies the really ugly-sounding echo which is his trademark to Newman's vocals. As a Randy Newman fan, I think wistfully of how much better this musically exemplary album would have been it had been properly recorded.
Still, despite the lousy sound, Randy Newman's Bad Love is one of his best sets of songs, and shows that the long-time musical curmudgeon has not lost it.
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