This week I reviewed Armando Iannucci’s fine The Death of Stalin, spent a little time listening to Etta Baker, and nodded to Mark Twain’s enthusiasm for the national game, which launched its 2018 season just yesterday.
Not long ago I sampled The Randy Newman Songbook, a three-CD set released in 2016 that covers the four decades of Newman‘s career. It is, though, not strictly a compilation — these are brand new recordings of many of his most (and least) recognized songs, recently performed by Newman alone at a piano. Lacking, then, are the often lush orchestrations and arrangements of the original album releases. But what we gain through these solo performances is a new respect for Newman as a consummate craftsman of American songwriting. Along with his contemporaries Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson, Newman represented perhaps the final generation of an American songwriting tradition that began in the early 20th century in Tin Pan Alley, reached something of an apotheosis in the Brill Building in the 1950s, then began to slowly decline until this kind of songwriting just about vanished in the 1980s.
While much of their music engages nostalgically with the American songwriting tradition, Newman, Parks, and Nilsson didn’t merely indulge in this nostalgia, but aimed it through the prism of an America that was radically changing in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the emotional and cultural certainties of these classic American songs were no longer relevant. While at first listen there are echoes of the Gershwins and Harry Ruby, dissonances (which are still jarring) rapidly appear, and the songs themselves become considerations of a lost world and its peculiar contemporary recollection. Below is a sample of this — an early Randy Newman song, “Vine Street,” which first appeared on the 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman — a peculiar collaboration detailed in the Wikipedia page about the album, which despite failing commercially won the Record-of-the-Year award from Stereo Review. This performance, an early demo recording, was included in the 1998 boxed set Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman, which is now out of print.