Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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RANDY NEWMAN
The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1
Nonesuch

Randy Newman has released only one album of self-sung new material in 15 years--Bad Love, which heightened a misanthropy grown caustic even by his own bitter standards with the most gorgeous arrangements of his Copland-inflected, Oscar-nominated life. But between his many soundtracks and theme songs and 1995's underrated musical-comedy-for-the-ear Faust, Newman hardly put himself out to pasture in the interim. The 19 voice-and-piano remakes on this redundant Nonesuch debut prove his vitality by venturing well beyond the early and familiar: selections include two cruel geopolitical reports from Bad Love, and three soundtrack-derived piano-only interludes provide relief from his muzzy drawl, which has always needed all the enhancement it can get. Because Newman's songwriting is so choice, his melodic discipline and knack for saying something sharp in a few simple words don't disappear, but his inspired arrangements obviously do. The recital format turns the 59-year-old into a faux classic emanating quiet, well-preserved background music--there's not a song here that doesn't have more bite in its orchestrated version. Better invest in the original albums, starting with 1970's 12 Songs and--why not?--1999's Bad Love. There are many more great songs where these came from.

Tracks, Jan. 2004