Harps and Angels
- Buy the CD
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
1. It has been nearly 10 years since he released his last collection of new material. (That collection, by the way, was the wonderful Bad Love, available at finer cutout bins everywhere.)
2. Because he’s spent the last 20 years focusing on film work, there is an entire generation of people who, when they hear the name “Randy Newman,” think of the pleasant-but-slightly-smarmy works for hire he wrote for kids’ flicks like “Toy Story.”
Okay, so “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” isn’t a bad song. But it’s nothing compared to “Louisiana 1927,” or “Marie,” or even “Dixie Flyer.” And maybe the interminable wait that preceded it is more a problem with its creator’s lackadaisical work habits than with the album itself, but still, you get the point: Harps and Angels is more of the same from Randy Newman, which is to say it’s fantastic, and that’s why it’s hard to listen to it without getting angry that he isn’t more prolific.
Newman’s never released a bad album, but he did go through a pretty bumpy patch in the ‘80s, releasing a trio of records that were bogged down by bad production and occasionally lazy songwriting. Neither is in evidence here. In terms of production, Harps is something of a throwback to Newman’s early ‘70s sound: heavily dependent on New Orleans-flavored piano rolls and movie-score strings. His voice remains the same froggishly flawed vessel it’s always been – which is fine, really, because it takes an imperfect instrument to accurately deliver Newman’s lyrics. In the wrong hands, his acid wit would come across as simply cruel, but when it’s delivered with his schleppy vulnerability, it’s easier to read between the lines – or laugh at his protagonists when they deserve to be mocked.
This time out, Newman remains focused on pretty much the same things that were on his mind for Bad Love – namely, aging and politics – but he lands his punches more strongly than he has in years. A perfect example is the razor-sharp “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” which has been available as a single download for over a year, and brilliantly lampoons our elected class with lines like “Now the leaders we have / While they’re the worst that we’ve had / Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen / Take the Caesars for example…”
Elsewhere, he addresses the growing divide between rich and poor while taking a playful jab at the left, singing “Jesus Christ it stinks here high and low / The rich are getting richer, I should know / While we’re going up, you’re going down / And no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne” in “A Piece of the Pie,” and mocks his own advancing infirmity with tracks like “Potholes,” where he welcomes the loss of memory that comes with old age: “God bless the potholes / Down on memory lane / Everything that happens to me now / Is consigned to oblivion by my brain.”
The piece de resistance in terms of Newman’s offensive humor, however, is “Korean Parents,” in which he assumes the character of a salesman wooing American kids with promises of higher test scores if they’ll only purchase his wares: “Korean parents for sale / You say you need a little discipline / Someone to whip you into shape / They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair.”
It isn’t all laughs, of course; “Losing You” is a straight-faced lament along the lines of Bad Love’s “I Miss You,” and “Feels Like Home” – repurposed here from the Bonnie Raitt-sung version on Newman’s 1995 Faust album – is one of the loveliest love songs you’ve never heard, given new life with a beautifully understated version. Where Raitt’s vocals slid up and down Newman’s arrangement with ease, his halting, almost-broken delivery brings out the heartbreaking vulnerability in lines like “If you knew / How much this moment means to me / And how long I’ve waited for your touch.”
All in all, it’s another solid entry in a career full of them, and you really don’t have any good reason not to own it. It would be nice if we could look forward to hearing another one from him anytime soon, but if we’re going to have to take what we can get, we could certainly do far worse than this.