In addition to being one of our greatest American singer- songwriters and film composers, Newman long ago established himself among our sharpest and most caustic wits. Calling his inspired new album The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. I seems like a curiously upbeat and straightforward act for this frequently wry fellow. "Yeah, it's not my style to look ahead with confidence," Newman confesses. "I'm basically asking for it with a title like that. Come to think of it, I could have called it something safer and more horrible like Looking Back At My Life, but I just didn't give it that much thought."
If it's not Newman's style to look forward with optimism, it's also not his personal preference to look back, whether in anger or in any other emotion. Yet somehow he still does so brilliantly on The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. I, his illuminating first effort for the Nonesuch label. The eighteen-song set finds Newman singing and playing piano on powerful new solo versions of his early classics ("I Think It's Going To Rain Today," "Sail Away," "You Can Leave Your Hat On"), his more recent gems ("The World Isn't Fair," "The Great Nations of Europe") as well as a few examples of the Oscar-winning composer's film music (themes from Avalon and Ragtime, as well as "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2) and even a favorite stray obscurity ("Let Me Go," a song originally written for the 1972 Norman Lear movie The Pursuit of Happiness).
The resulting album is an intimate and powerful reminder of the enduring work that has established Newman as a songwriter's songwriter -- one of the most musically and lyrically ambitious singer- songwriters ever to be at play in the fields of popular music. Characteristically, Newman offers no hype. "This was something I did at the behest of the record company really," Newman explains matter of factly. "It wasn't something I would have thought to do necessarily -- memorialize my own songs. It's kind of interesting to me to do this project because it does play to history in a way, but in truth that's not as interesting to me personally as new stuff. I like writing new songs, though frankly I don't do that too much either. See I know these songs already but to do them in this way is not a bad thing. It's nice, actually."
"Nice" really understates matters considerably. In a very real sense The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 can be seen as the album of a lifetime. Here is Newman at the height of his musical powers working with producer Mitchell Froom -- well-known for his work with Los Lobos, Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello, among others -- to rerecord many of his finest and most lasting compositions. Newman and Froom cut thirty tracks to arrive at the final eighteen here. Even Newman was surprised at some songs that made the cut and others that did not. "Surprisingly, I always love playing 'Davy The Fat Boy' or 'Same Girl,' and they didn't make the album. While 'Louisiana 1927' doesn't interest me in playing it much, and yet these really were the songs that worked best. Some others could have been on here and weren't. We could have put 'I Love L.A.' or 'Emotional Girl' -- and if we sell enough to break even and there is a Vol. 2, we will."