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It's been nine years since Bad Love (Dreamworks SKG, 1999), Randy Newman's last album of original material. In the interim the singer/songwriter moved to Nonesuch for Songbook Vol. 1 (2003), where he revisited some of his favorite songs. As good as it was, it's nice to know that, with Harps and Angels, his pen is as sharp as ever. High expectations were set when he released "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" in 2007. The iTunes-only ode to the current state of the USA placed second on Rolling Stones' "100 Best Songs of 2007," garnering considerable notoriety when The New York Times, after offering Newman space on its Op Ed page, censored references to the US Supreme Court, where he opined "But I defy you, anywhere in the world / To find me two Italians as tight-assed as the two Italians we got / And as for the brother, well / Pluto's not a planet anymore either."
But anyone who has followed Newman's forty-year career knows that, long before South Park became synonymous with uncompromising irreverence, Newman was driving points home on songs like "Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easier)," from Little Criminals (Warner Bros., 1977). Newman's strength has always been in articulating his views with biting humor, unabashed honesty and, sometimes, an ambiguity that leaves a question as to whether he's really kidding or notbut that's often the point.
The music isn't exactly secondary, since Newman's a fine musician equally comfortable playing solo piano as he is scoring for an eighty-plus piece orchestra, as he does on some of Harps and Angels' ten tracks. But more than any of his previous albums, the musicwhile appealingly ranging from the New Orleans-informed blues of the title track and "Potholes" to the country tinge of "A Few Words"is all about supporting the words and Newman's sometimes narrative, other times rough yet surprisingly tender delivery.
The title track is the first person story of a New Orleans down-and-outer who has a near-death experience, only to be told by the Grim Reaper, that "Someone very dear to me has made another clerical error," before receiving a little advice for when his time does roll around. "Laugh and Be Happy" tackles American immigration issues with the same wit as his skewing of the American economy on "A Piece of the Pie," with an acerbic self-awareness ("The rich are getting richer / I should know") that makes "A Few Words" even wryer ("I don't even like to think about it / Well sometimes I like to think about it.").
Juxtaposing the poignant "Feels Like Home" and melancholy "Losing You" with songs featuring his more corrosive wit may be working the same emotional territory Newman's been at for forty years, but he just keeps on getting better. If it takes nine years to come up with another gem like Harps and Angels, then Newman should absolutely take all the time he needs.
Track Listing: Harps and Angels; Losing You; Laugh and Be Happy; A Few Words in Defense of
Our Country; A Piece of the Pie; Easy Street; Korean Parents; Only a Girl;
Potholes; Feels Like Home.
Personnel: Randy Newman: piano, vocals, orchestra arrangements; conductor; Greg Cohen:
bass; Steve Donelly: guitar; Pete Thomas: drums; Greg Leisz: pedal steel and
acoustic slide guitar; Mitchell Froom: additional keyboards. Orchestra: Roger
Wilkie: violin; Eun-Mee Ahn: violin; Jacueline Brand: violin; Kevin Connolly: violin;
Joel Deroiun: violin; Julie Ann Gigante: violin; Natalie Leggett: violin; Helen
Nightengale: violin; Alyssa Park: violin; Sara Parkins: violin; Katia Popov: violin;
Rafael Rishik: violin; Anatoly Rosinsky: violin; Marc Sazer: violin; tereza Stanislav:
violin; Lisa M. Sutton: violin; Sarah Thornblade: violin; Irina Voloshina: violin; Brian
Dembow: viola; Robert Berg: viola; Thomas Denier: viola; Steven Gordon: viola;
Roland Kato: viola; Darrin McCann: viola; Victoria Miskoczy: viola; Michael Nowak:
viola; Shanti Randall: viola; David Walther: viola; Dennis Karmazyn: cello; Antony
Cooke: cello; Steve Erdody: cello; Christine Ermacoff: cello; Armen Ksajikian: cello;
Andrew Shulman: cello; David Speltz: cello; Cecelia Tsan: cello; Michael Valerio:
bass; Drew Dembowski: bass; Edward Meares: bass; Susan Ranney: bass; James
Walker: flute; Norda Mullen: flute; Geraldine Rotella: flute; David Shostac: flute;
Gary Bovyer: clarinet; Stuart Clark: clarinet; Donald Foster: clarinet; Marty Krystall:
clarinet; Daniel Higgins: saxophone; Gary Foster: saxophone; Greg Huckins:
saxophone; Bill Liston: saxophone; Brian Scanlon: saxophone; Thomas Boyd:
oboe; Leslie Reed: oboe; Kenneth Munday: bassoon; Michael O'Donovan: bassoon;
Judith Farmer: bassoon; James Thatcher: horn; Mark Adams: horn; Richard Todd:
horn; Warren Luening: trumpet; Malcolm McNab: trumpet; Daniel Fornero: trumpet;
Jon Lewis: trumpet; Timothy Morrison: trumpet; William Booth: trombone; Bruce
Fowler: trombone; Alesander Iles: trombone; William Reichenbach: trombone;
George Thatcher: trombone; Doug Tornquist: tuba; Alan Estes: percussion;
Gregory Goodall: percussion; Jo Ann Turovsky: harp; Allison Allport: harp; Frank
Marocco: accordion; Carmen Carter: background vocals; Tim Davis: background
vocals; Luana Jackson: background vocals; Steve Jackson: background vocals;
Rick Logan: background vocals; Susan Stevens Logan: background vocals;
Fletcher Sheridan: background vocals; Oren Waters: background vocals; Terry
Wood: background vocals; Kathie Van Kerckhoven: angry Belgian (5); Jeremy
Altervain: angry Belgian (5); Los Amigos Locos del Este: happy immigrants (3).