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"