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Randy Newman, proving his mastery


Randy Newman, “The Randy Newman Songbook, Volume Three” (Nonesuch).

In a perfect world, the Pultizer Prize for Music would have decided 30 years ago to forsake, as hopelessly out of date, the idea that it should be won by contemporary classical composers only. Winners of the prize for music, then, would have already included the likes of Charles Mingus, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman.

Should anyone doubt Newman’s bona fides, listen to this, the third volume in a series where Newman sings his own songs in his inimitable snide-soulful voice accompanied only by himself at the piano. This is Randy Newman’s Randy Newman. When he gets dark, few American songwriters can get darker.

Try this from “Old Man:” “Won’t be no God to comfort you/You taught me not to believe that lie/You don’t need nobody/ Nobody needs you/ Don’t cry, old man, don’t cry/Everybody dies.”

Or try “Red Bandana,” all about a fellow who “flew back to Buffalo” from Hollywood “with a red bandana on my head.” When he runs into a “woman I used to love,” she’s in a “bar off the Harlem Road sitting in a booth with Charlie Hobbs/And this little ugly dude/whom I didn’t know” and admiring his new red bandana. To which he replies “it’s red just like your blood is.” Another round of chills for everyone, you know?

No American songwriter that I know quite has Randy Newman’s sardonic portrait gallery. On all his stripped-down minimalist “Songbook” records you get what he does pure, whether it’s nutritive or strychnine. The whole series is musical mastery – pure.

4 stars (out of four)

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