Randy Newman
Harps and Angels


2.5
average

Review

by Nick Butler EMERITUS
July 30th, 2008 | 16 replies


Release Date: 2008 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Not quite the Randy we know and love.

No matter how much he does to obfuscate his own legacy with a legion of film soundtracks for not-very-good films (Leatherheads? James and the Giant Peach? Meet The Parents? Really?), it's surely only a matter of time before Randy Newman becomes widely considered as one of the great American songwriters. Tellingly, he is one of the few whose songs have actually dated well, to the point where they arguably sound better now - it's conjecture that admittedly comes from a 22 year old who could never really know the answer, but while I probably would have got the same kick out of "Southern Man" and "Like A Rolling Stone" when they were released as I do now, the same cannot be said of "Political Science" and "Rednecks", both of which say more about the George Bush era than just about any song actually written about George Bush.

One would then assume that any new Randy Newman material would be better than any new Bob Dylan or Neil Young material. That impression is bolstered by the first impression given off by Harps and Angels - that this and his 1970s classics Sail Away and Good Old Boys could all easily have been written and recorded within 18 months of one another. As far as sheer sound goes, this does not sound anything like 34 years of either progress or deterioration, because the vocals, the chord structures, the arrangements, the playing, and the lyrics are all more or less the same. A late career renaissance, then? It would be one that was already started by 2003's impressive set of reworkings The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1, after all. And there's a song called "A Few Words in Defence of our Country"! Brilliant!

Sadly, that's not how things are going down. Rather than a solid, short set of songs in the classic Randy Newman mould, what we instead get is a wash of gimmicks and uninspired writing. And nowhere is that more apparent than on the two tracks that form the album's centrepiece - "A Piece of the Pie", and the aforementioned "A Few Words". The latter simply should be a classic in his catalogue, because the concept is genius; a defence of the U.S.A. that, instead of trying to justify the motives for anything, points all the evil crap that other countries have done too. If anyone should be able to hit one out of the park with a topic like that, it's Newman. Yet, "A Few Words" is rambling, listless, structureless, entirely devoid of melody, and ultimately as confusing as it is confused. It's a bitter disappointment. "A Piece of the Pie", on the other hand, attempts to grab the listener's attention through a variety of tricks - a loud, discordant brass intro, suddenly dropping into nervous quiet sections, telling the backing vocals to shut up - but all it does is make it clear how much of the song is showmanship and how little is actual honest content.

The rest doesn't go to such extreme lengths to hide its weaknesses, and as such is much easier to listen to. Also, in songs like "Korean Parents", it's easier to appreciate what he does get right - the Eastern flavours present here are hardly a revelation or even that unique, but they're a nice touch to vary up proceedings. Yet, by the time the schmaltzy "Feels Like Home" rolls around, you can't help but feel that listening to this album has been a nice experience but also a complete waste of time. The real difficulty with that is that Randy Newman has been so effectively parodied by this point, both by himself and by shows like Family Guy, that a bad Randy Newman is a funny one, and not in a good way. I wouldn't blame a newcomer to his work for listening to this and thinking of a man, in the middle of a nuclear wasteland, singing what he sees - it's a lasting image, and one that requires better material than this to be overcome.

It's hard to slate Harps and Angels too much, because the music is actually quite good in places and it's nowhere near bad enough to be a chore to listen to. If anything, the weaker points have their places - one must admire the sheer bloody-minded unpretentiousness of a song like "Potholes" on some level - but none of what's here pushes any buttons, either provocatively, humourously, or emotionally. At heart, this is a perfectly pleasant album. But from the man who wrote "Sail Away", "Rednecks", "Lonely at the Top", and "Political Science", is that really what we want?



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user ratings (12)
Chart.
3.8
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
taylormemer
July 30th 2008


4944 Comments


Have a lot of respect for the guy, but this is definitely not his best work, well from the little I've heard. I'll still get it, but eh. Review makes me not want to as much now.This Message Edited On 07.30.08

plane
Staff Reviewer
July 30th 2008


6099 Comments


I like when you review like this, like you understand that some albums just need to have responses rather than critiques but you do a fine job of handling both.

Eliminator
July 30th 2008


2067 Comments


yeah im going to have to agree with lewis i think a response is definitely the way to go with an album like this

Tyler
Emeritus
July 30th 2008


7926 Comments


Only Newman song I remember liking is Short People.

brandtweathers
July 31st 2008


2007 Comments


he'll bounce back. he always does

DFelon204409
Emeritus
July 31st 2008


3996 Comments


I can't think of one Randy Newman song that isn't goofy, sappy, or affected beyond being able to enjoy it, even on a humorous or entertainment level.

brandtweathers
July 31st 2008


2007 Comments


i think that's what's so innocent and all-appropriate about his musings

Susan
August 5th 2008


1 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

You must have *never* listened to anything by Brecht and Weil, if you don't get the brilliance of "Piece of the Pie." Also, Newman's orchestrations are simply amazing on this album-- better even than "Sail Away" or anything he's done previously. Maybe you actually have to know something about real music to appreciate "Harps and Angels"? I'd consider that possibility.

taylormemer
August 5th 2008


4944 Comments


^^
Awesome.
Thanks for the input. Probably never see you again.
Bye.

brandtweathers
August 5th 2008


2007 Comments


lolz
oh susan

megalodon
August 8th 2008


108 Comments


Heard the track "A Few Words" on XM talk radio yesterday (they were interviewing Newman) along with some of the other songs off of this record and I'd have to say that I have never been impressed with his work and, from what I've heard of this album, I never will be. It seems like he's grasping at straws most of the time instead of writing decent material. Nice Family Guy reference in your review. The parody they made is very fitting.

...and Susan. Are you fucking serious?

botb
August 13th 2008


9757 Comments


red haired lady reachin for an apple...

Digging: Solstafir - Ótta

botb
August 13th 2008


9757 Comments


double post ftlThis Message Edited On 08.13.08

dotherightthing
August 27th 2008


15 Comments


I stopped reading after you said James and the Giant Peach wasn't a good movie.

Might I get a witness.

kygermo
September 16th 2008


996 Comments


Fat man with his kids and dog,
come in through the morning fog,
Hey there rover! Come on over...

Red headed lady, reaching for an apple,
Goes to take a bite..no, gonna bweathe on it foist.



(Whats that from?)

irvingmoses
November 22nd 2009


1 Comments


I'm a very old English person, whose just gone thru' all the palaver of joining this site, with which I'm not familiar, just to direct DFelon towards Randy Newman Live, a really wonderful album, lust Newman and his piano, with lots of songs on it - I think It's Going to Rain Today and Cowboy are maybe my favourites, which are in no way goofy, sappy, or - devoid of whistles-and-bells orchestration - affected. Please give it a whirl. Haven't heard the new album yet. The review seems fair, intelligent and considered, but I'm hoping that I'll disagree with it when I listen to the album.



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