There couldn't be a less likely pop star than Randy Newman. Fat, old, raspy-voiced and incisively satirical, Newman is the Johnny Cash of pop -- a dark horse songsmith whose long career has proven his truly American voice. Like the ditties of his friend and contemporary, the late Harry Nilsson, Newman's hit songs are better known than he is. The oft-covered "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and "Short People" (from the height of his early career in the late '60s and '70s) are more like authorless folk songs than hits by a larger-than-life pop star.
But time is generally kind to great songwriters, and Newman's face and voice have gradually emerged from behind the mask of his songs. Some of his recent recognition can surely be attributed to the acclaim of "You've Got a Friend in Me" (a Grammy-winner from the Monsters Inc. soundtrack), and the release of his Songbook Vol. 1 couldn't possibly be a better introduction to his more literary and political songwriting oeuvre for those who aren't already fans.
Like a perfectly produced demo, Newman accompanies himself on piano and belts 18 of his favorites including "It's Lonely at the Top," "Louisiana 1927," "You Can Leave Your Hat On," "The Great Nations of Europe" and "Marie." The effect of the simple production (most of Newman's albums are heavily orchestrated) is that of an extended secular gospel solo -- a voice lifted up to the spirit of the mind. You'll never find more perfectly crafted lines of musical satire than "The Christians and the Jews are having a jamboree/ The Buddhists and the Hindu joined on satellite TV" from "God's Song," or the all-too-apropos "We're rednecks rednecks/ And we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground/ We're rednecks rednecks/ And we're keepin' the niggers down" from "Rednecks."
Then there's the searingly lovely breakup song "Living Without You," an even more heartbreaking rendition than Nilsson's cover of it on Nilsson Sings Newman in 1970.
For those who've loved him, or those who want to know what truly great songwriting can be, this album is well worth the $18 sticker shock.
-- Noel Black
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Educated Guess Ani DiFranco Righteous Babe Records
Princess of indie alt-folk Ani DiFranco just released her first solo album in more than 10 years. Titled Educated Guess, the album is typical Ani fare for the most part: passionate, rhythmic guitar with intense, narrative lyrics in the soaring voice that belongs to -- that is -- DiFranco. Unlike previous efforts, she lapses into spoken word more ("the true story of what was" and "grand canyon"), exploring her verse and letting the music itself seem almost incidental at times. Songs like "Educated Guess," "You Each Time" and "Bubble" are near perfect, minus some of DiFranco's grating multitrack duets with herself. These elliptical layers of a voice that's already overpowering on such a stripped down album are often distracting. However, her solo work on Educated Guess proves again that DiFranco is an artist, for better or worse, with the integrity of uncompromising personal vision.