CD Review of Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman by Various Artists

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Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Sugar Hill
Released: 2006

That there’s a tribute to Randy Newman is far from surprising; the bigger shock is that this appears to be the first of its kind…at least one done by more than one artist. (A few folks have done solo tributes, the most famous being Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Sings Newman.) Newman has been roundly mocked for his unique singing voice on “Family Guy,” and the fact that it took him fifteen Oscar nominations to finally earn an Academy Award (for Best Song) is probably second only to Susan Lucci’s as the most famous losing streak of all time (Ed. Note: Don’t forget the Cubs), but ask any lyricist to list either his heroes or his most talented peers, and you’ll hear Newman’s name over and over. In fact, David Wild’s liner notes for the set open with the statement, “If you are reading these words and you write songs, know this much right upfront: you are not as good as Randy Newman. With all due respect, you are not even close. That’s right, that goes for you, too, Bob Dylan.” Hyperbole? Depends on whom you ask…though even Wild has the common sense to concede, “Okay, perhaps we can just call it a draw right there.”

Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman doesn’t feature covers by the obvious suspects who’ve drawn inspiration from the man’s work over the years; there’s no Elvis Costello or Rufus Wainwright waiting in the wings. Instead, Sugar Hill Records – home to Dolly Parton, Albert Lee, and many others – enlisted folk, country, and Americana artists to pay tribute. It makes sense to a certain extent, given that there are few songwriters with such a definitively “American” lyrical voice, but it’s mildly surprising that they didn’t open it up to musicians of other genres, given that Newman’s influence is far-reaching.

The collection opens with its title cut, and Tim O’Brien’s take on the song follows approximately the same path as Newman’s original, but it sets the tone of the set by being decidedly heavier on fiddle and steel guitar. Things take a trip into bluegrass territory via the Del McCoury Band’s rendition of “Birmingham,” then to old-school country – courtesy of Reckless Kelly and Joe Ely – with “Rider in the Rain.” It’s a bit odd for Bela Fleck to choose to do an instrumental cover of Newman’s “Burn On,” but, then again, just because Newman’s renowned for his lyrics doesn’t mean he doesn’t also write some damned fine melodies.

The best of the bunch is Steve Earle’s raging “Rednecks,” where, over the course of three minutes, he offers a performance that’ll remind you that he was around long before the Drive-By Truckers stole a lot of his act. The least impressive track, meanwhile, comes courtesy of the Duhks’ version of “Political Science.” Jessica Havey’s bluesy vocals and Leonard Podolak’s banjo never really gel over Jeff Coffin’s squawking sax – which is a major bummer, given how all too apt the song’s lyrics are today.

No one likes us – I don’t know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let’s drop the big one and see what happens
We give them money, but are they grateful
No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them
We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Sail Away; it just makes you wish you could hear other artists with different styles tackle Newman’s material. Oh, and it makes you want to go pick up a Randy Newman best-of compilation, too…but that probably goes without saying

~Will Harris