Saturday, July 28, 2012

Randy Newman "12 Songs" (4.5*)

By the time Randy Newman's second album came out in 1970 he’d already spent close to a decade as a staff writer for a Los Angeles music publisher and had scored enough minor hits to acquire a reputation. After Alan Price’s Simon Smith and Manfred Mann’s So Long Dad a review noting the presence of a Randy Newman song was close to a trademark of quality as far as I was concerned.

When it came to recording his own material, on the other hand, things hadn’t quite matched expectations. While he’d had plenty of experience cutting demos in the studio the heavily orchestrated Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks produced Randy Newman (Creates Something New Under the Sun) delivered semi-baroque arrangements around a vocal style that was, well, idiosyncratic. It was obviously something the Warner Brothers marketing division were aware of (Once you get used to it, his voice is really something was the headline in one advertisement) and with the hindsight that comes with forty-plus years I’m inclined to put some of that down to the influence of Van Dyke Parks, who’s more than slightly idiosyncratic in the vocal and arranging department himself.

Still, the material was strong once you got past the eccentricities. I mean, how can you not like an album that contains Love Story (You and Me), So Long Dad, I Think It's Going to Rain Today and Davy the Fat Boy? You might wish he’d done them a little differently, but there was no doubting the quality of the writing.

That’s not to suggest it was a complete flop. Paul McCartney, for one, was apparently a big fan, and the album gained its share of kudos from peers and critics. The problem was that it didn’t attract a whole lot of airplay and sales were minimal.

Rather than surrounding Newman with seventy-five musicians for 12 Songs, Lenny Waronker went for the small combo approach, basing things around Newman’s piano and guitar work from Clarence White and Ry Cooder. Add some bass drums and percussion and the result is a lot more direct in the instrumental department. A lack of ornate orchestration tends to pare back the vocal mannerisms as well, and through Have You Seen My Baby? and Let's Burn Down the Cornfield things are fairly straightforward.

Baby is, to all intents and purposes, New Orleans-style R&B, and while a critic might question the lack of piano on Cornfield I’d point straight towards that slide guitar work from Mr Cooder and ask why you’d be looking to let something else get in the way. Mama Told Me Not to Come was covered by Three Dog Night, and comes across here as a wry observation on the L.A. Rock world’s party scene as seen through the eyes of an innocent abroad. Would you like whiskey with your water? indeed.

That innocent abroad may well have ended up on the end of the line in the understated Suzanne, where there’s a creepy caller who found your name in a telephone booth. Reviews at the time had the voice as a rapist, and if he isn’t there’s still no way his intentions are what we used to term honourable.

Given the sequencing, you can’t help thinking he may be the same dude who turns up in Lover's Prayer, just under two minutes of protagonist looking for nothing more involved than a quick complication-free relationship that may or may not involve commitment. He’s certainly not looking for discussion of anything controversial (I was entertaining a little girl up in the rooms, Lord/With California wine and French perfume/She started to talk to me 'bout the war, Lord/Said, 'I don't wanna talk about the war’).

You could make a fair case for the same dude (or his cousin brother) turning up on Lucinda. Summer evening on the beach and here’s a girl lyin' on the beach / In her graduation gown ... wrapped up in a blanket and the narrator, being a man of the world, could tell, she knew her way around. So what does he do? Lies down beside her, of course, and we’re probably best leaving what happens next to the imagination.

And with the approach of the big white truck and the beach cleaning man he clears off, leaving Lucinda ... buried / 'Neath the California sand. He mightn’t be the same dude, of course, but there’s a certain consistency and the three songs are delivered deadpan with maybe a hint of raised eyebrow.

So, a run of songs that could well be cut from the same piece of cloth, and guess what? He follows that with a one-two combo.

Underneath the Harlem Moon, the only non-Newman composition on the album dates back to the twenties and delivers a string of racial stereotyping that sets the stage for later efforts like Sail Away and Rednecks, but here acts as a lead in to the similarly cliche-rich Yellow Man, later described as a pinhead’s view of China (they say they were there / before we were here. Really? Who’d have thunk?).

When it comes to cliche-based satire, Newman’s not being selective in his ethnic targets. Old Kentucky Home merrily skewers the redneck narrator with a cheerful singalong chorus and a couple of lines I’ve been known to purloin for my own purposes (she didn’t grow up, she grew out, for example). I first encountered this one on Ry Cooder, but Newman’s take on it has a bit more of the old raised eyebrow to it.

The last three tracks wind things up in a low key manner. Newman drawls his way through
Rosemary, which comes across as a gentleman caller offering an evening out without a great deal of hope that his desires will be fulfilled, and he may still be around offering his services If You Need Oil while Uncle Bob's Midnight Blues wraps things up without doing anything remarkable. Maybe he needed something like I Think It’s Going To Rain Today to fill that spot, but he’d already used that last time around, hadn’t he?

Coming back to this one after a lengthy interval it’s easy to overlook 12 Songs’ considerable charms. Randy Newman had the orchestrations, the quirky vocals and a handful of genuinely great songs, while the next studio album, Sail Away, had strong material, brought back the strings and had Newman in top form vocally.

In comparison, 12 Songs, on first impressions, may come across as more subdued, but give it a bit of time to sink in and you may well end up rating it as some of his best work. The players deliver just the right amount of light and shade, nothing is wasted, the songs are focussed and Newman goes very close to nailing the vocals. Not, perhaps, as striking as its predecessor or the albums that followed, but definitely a harbinger of quality to come.

But then, after Simon Smith, So Long Dad, Love Story, Davy the Fat Boy and I Think It’s Going to Rain Today some of us already knew he was a class act, didn’t we?

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