Tag Archives: Randy Newman

Love’s Enough – David Ackles

“I won’t get maudlin,” Ackles promises midway into the second side, locking himself in the barn as the dappled stallion gallops to join his brothers and sisters on the open range with his mane flying free in the breeze.

Robert Christgau, review of David Ackles’ American Gothic

From the facetious tone of his review, I guess the Dean found Ackles to be mendacious and phoney rather than incompetent. Quite why Christgau thought himself qualified to judge musicians’ motivations without knowing them personally, I’ve never been able to determine. While, like Christgau, I find American Gothic an unsatisfying record by a songwriter of lesser artistic value than most of his peers (both the more commercially successful ones and the unsung heroes; Judee Sill came out in 1971, Heart Food in 1973), his review seems gratuitously mean now, with Ackles long dead from cancer, and with far greater and more mendacious threats to popular music living, breathing and walking amongst us.

Plenty of other people have loved his work. Elton John’s a professed fan. Bernie Taupin, too – so much so that he produced American Gothic. Phil Collins picked Down River while on Desert Island Discs. Elvis Costello mentioned him on stage while being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ackles mostly went unnoticed in his career. Christgau’s one of the few to have noticed and dismissed him.

Ackles was nothing more than a likeable and humble guy with a bent towards musical theatre, Weill and Copland, a rather corny sensibility not entirely unlike Neil Diamond (whom in the latter’s more restrained moments Ackles rather resembles vocally). How much you like Ackles may well depend on your tolerance for sprechgesang and being told rather than shown how characters think and feel (the biggest problem with the title track, although it does end with the killer line ‘They suffer least that suffer what they choose’), but he’s unlikely to enrage you; the enthusiasm of his bigger fans is likewise perplexing.

Other than the delivery and the pedestrian nature of the lyrics (would that Ackles had possessed a flair for comedy and a taste for the macabre or grotesque like Brecht, Walker, Waits or Newman – the album title might have been a better fit for the music therein), the biggest problem with the record is the fussy arrangements, conducted by a soul sympathetic to them – Robert Kirby, known for his work with Nick Drake, and whose work has always been a bit twee, a bit callow.

Love’s Enough is sparer, could have been cut by any artist in any era with only minimal changes to the arrangement and production to make it suitable for its time. In the eighties, its almost inaudible brushed drums would have been replaced with enormo-super-mega-giant-bashing-away-in-a-cave drums. In the fifties it might have had the benefit of Gordon Jenkins’ or Nelson Riddle’s attentions. But the song would have been affecting either way.

Tonally and lyrically, Love’s Enough doesn’t fit on its parent album – it’s a very hard gear change after the opening title track – but without it the album would sink under the weight its ambitions. A moment of quiet reflection, in an intimate register, on a recognisable situation, Love’s Enough is a classic of sorts. I can’t recommend American Gothic to all but the very curious*, but its finest ballad deserves the audience that Elton, Bernie, Elvis and Phil have tried to win for their hero.

 

*Oh all right then, I do like Oh, California. I’m not made of stone.

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Rear cover of American Gothic (after Grant Wood)

Here’s some of my recent work on Soundcloud. Click on my name in the top-left corner or the word soundcloud in the top-right corner to go to the site and hear more songs.

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Stormy Weather/Nobody Knew Her – Nina Nastasia

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs is a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can’t really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly. Of the couple thousand records I’ve been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I’m proud to be associated with.

Steve Albini

 

A really great debut, the arrival of a talent already fully formed but with the potential to grow in any one of a number of directions, happens seldom, and with vanishing rarity by singer-songwriters. Bands, if the fragile chemistry is properly captured and they’re able to write a good tune or two, are more likely to do their best work early. Singer-songwriters take longer: few would argue that Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, Song to a Seagull, Neil Young, Closing Time, London Conversation, or More Than a New Discovery were their authors’ best works, or even among them. You could make a case for Leonard Cohen’s and Randy Newman’s debuts (I would). Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s best. Sweet Baby James is Taylor’s best, but it’s a low bar. Judee Sill is better than everything else ever, including her second and posthumous third. But the thesis holds, I think.

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs, though, is one of the great debut albums. I first heard it after becoming intrigued by two things that happened very close together: firstly, I read the above quote from Steve Albini, who engineered Dogs and all of Nastasia’s subsequent records. Second, I read an issue of Mojo in a hospital waiting room where Laura Marling nominated Nastasia’s work as a major influence. I’d heard nothing but good things about Marling but remained unconvinced by her songs or singing, and so was interested to hear an influence on her that maybe contained the things I did like about Marling in a more concentrated or developed form.

I certainly got that.

On first listen, Dogs sounded like a very good chamber-folk kind of record: sparse, vibey, atmospheric, beautifully arranged and recorded, and with really strong songs with surprising twists and little moments of dissonance. The more I listened, the better it sounded. Certain songs (All Your Life, Underground, A Love Song, the peerless Stormy Weather) bore their way into me.

I’m a recording geek, as regular readers will know, so Dogs is a pleasure from the first note to last. Among Albini’s stellar work, it’s a particularly great-sounding record. Listen to the strings on Stormy Weather and you’re in the room with the players, every nuance, every scrape, every creak, every change in bow direction audible. On their own, listening to these strings would be a compelling experience, but they are just the backing for Nastasia’s beguiling, winding melody and elliptical lyrics. Stormy Weather (not the jazz standard, by the way, if you don’t know the record) is a moment of perfection that makes the world stop.

Nobody Knew Her lets it all back in, noisily. I know nothing about Nastasia’s personal life, but in interviews she has alluded to a friend killed in an accident on Pacific Coast Highway, and Nobody Knew Her seems like it deals with these events, initially being sung as if by a schoolgirl (‘He won’t go out with me/I don’t care if I never see his face’), before with two hard strums and the line ‘Everyone’s talking about you’, the band slam in; and in the context of such a hushed album, they do slam.

It’s not a mawkish or maudlin song, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with its meaning – I listened to the song a dozen times, probably, before the significance of the chorus (‘Bradley, Bradley, I think you got away’) actually hit me, even as the second verse makes it plain we’re dealing with a car wreck – but the significance of having the band play hardest and loudest on a song about a friend’s early death (and his passenger – a girl nobody knew) is clear.

After Nastasia sings, ‘This desk says you were here’, there’s a pause of a few seconds before the band come back in. What could have been a very cheesy moment is instead the song’s most powerful; as the last line of the song sinks in and the chord decays, we hear the guitar amp hum and some very audible handling noise. If they’d have gone for silence before the band re-entered, that might have been cheesy. Nastasia and Albini allow even this consciously big moment retain its humanity and rough edges.

Guitarist Gerry Leonard then plays one of my favourite guitar solos, a messy, passion-filled 24 bars that function as a sort of boozy, rowdy wake after a sombre funeral. It’s a performance of proper catharsis, a real cleansing. It’s not typical of her later work – instead, it’s the most ‘indie rock’ her music’s ever been – but it’s the record’s key passage, the deepest moment in a record full of them. If you like either Stormy Weather or Nobody Knew Her, you need to hear the album in full. It’s a classic.

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Nina Nastasia

While You Wait for the Others – Grizzly Bear, ft Michael McDonald

Sorry for the lack of updates since New Year’s Day. I did try to write something yesterday but tiredness and lethargy got the better of me. I was unwell over the weekend, and spent rather too much of it feeling sick, or actually being sick, to be able to focus on writing. On the mend now, thankfully!

In 2009, Grizzly Bear released While You Wait for the Others from Veckatimest. The B-side was a second version of the song – the same arrangement, but with guitarist Daniel Rossen’s lead vocals replaced by Michael McDonald (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan).

McDonald is the acknowledged harmony-vocal king of the seventies and early eighties and, if you’re into a certain kind of LA studio rock (and I am), his solo debut, If That’s What it Takes, is the ne plus ultra – we’re talking Willie Weeks, Steve Gadd, Jeff and Mike Porcaro, Robben Ford, Dean Parks, Tom Scott, Greg Phillanganes, Michael Omartian, Christopher Cross on backing vocals, Lenny Castro and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, even Edgar Winter on sax. And Steve Lukather, of course. As a guy who lapped up Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman records, and grew up on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad – of course this record hits me right where I live.

Grizzly Bear don’t, really. Something about them puts me off a little. There’s a certain lack of delicacy about their music that I find unappealing; everything is a little bigger, grander and less intimate than I’d like it to be, than it needs to be. I usually find myself impressed by their music, but seldom moved. Meanwhile, I know I’m supposed only to like Michael McDonald ironically, admire the craftsmanship but find the whole thing slightly synthetic and soulless. But no. Not at all. As funny as it was, and as much as it did to direct hipsters’ attention to music from the late seventies and early eighties that wasn’t punk or post-punk, perhaps Yacht Rock did guys like McDonald a disservice, giving them a revival that was even more deaf to the qualities of the music than the big band/swing revival of the late nineties, if such a thing were possible. Watching Yacht Rock, it’s sometimes hard to shake the impression that the band they liked most out of all those they portrayed was actually Van Halen (‘More Eddie! More Alex! More David! More of that other guy!’).

McDonald’s power as a performer comes from his passionate engagement with music. This is a guy who brings tremendous soul to everything he sings, someone who can locate the emotional nub of a piece of music, whether it’s an essentially dry and cerebral construction like the Dan’s I Got the News or a piece of second-rate Tempertonia like Sweet Freedom, which speaks the language of soul but gets far more from McDonald than it had a right to expect.

If only the Grizzlys hadn’t needlessly double-tracked his vocal…

What McDonald did for Grizzy Bear was to plug them into something that’s usually slightly beyond their reach. It was a cute concept, sure, but it actually worked on record. I wish more bands did this kind of thing.

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Grizzly Bear

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Michael McDonald

Trouble in Paradise – Randy Newman

Irreverent, Snide, Acerbic, Bitter, Cerebral, Confrontational, Cynical/Sarcastic, Ironic, Stylish, Wry, Tense/Anxious

All Music Guide’s ‘Album Moods’ for Trouble in Paradise

Randy Newman has always maintained that a professional songwriter should be able to write songs, any kind of song, to order. This willingness to put his own aesthetic preferences to one side and get to work on whatever his commissioners want, coupled with his facility for the job of writing and arranging scores and songs, have made him one of the busiest soundtrack composers in Hollywood for around thirty years now. But it does lead to a huge gulf between what his long-time fans love him for and what he’s known for by a more general audience. It surprises me that to this day there’s not a Randy Newman best-of on the market featuring just his Disney/Pixar songs. Anyone buying Rhino’s 2001 retrospective The Best of Randy Newman hoping for 20 more songs like You’ve Got a Friend in Me will find themselves confronted by Rednecks, Sail Away and Little Criminals. Whether they conclude that Newman is racist, a satirist or a troll may depend on their sensitivity to irony, but still, they’ll get more than they bargained for.

Whatever happened to the old songs, like The Duke of Earl?
Hey Mikey, whatever happened to the fucking Duke of Earl?

Mikey’s

All of which crossed my mind while watching Toy Story 3 on Christmas Day, then I thought about Trouble in Paradise. I couldn’t honestly claim it as my favourite Randy Newman record (that would be a toss-up between his debut and Good Old Boys, which are both of such sustained, stupendous quality that I feel humbled in their presence, when I’m not laughing myself silly at them), but a record with I Love LA, The Blues, My Life is Good, Christmas in Cape Town, Same Girl, Song for the Dead and Real Emotional Girl deserves more press than it gets. That’s a batch of top-drawer songs, whether or not you would listen to Toto guitarist Steve Lukather’s playing in any other context.

Trouble in Paradise is an on-the-nose title for this record. Most of the characters in these songs come by their situations by their own inadequacies; given every advantage, they squander them through stupidity, selfishness and greed. They are the most despicable bunch of creations in popular music, with the possible exception of the losers, dealers, pimps and idiotic cuckolds of Steely Dan’s Gaucho. Like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on that album, Newman does give us a couple of sympathetic characters to cling on to (the put-upon Mexican maid of My Life is Good; Marie – surely not the same Marie from Good Old Boys – who seems to have left the narrator of Mikey’s, and not before time; the addressee of Same Girl, ruthless exploited by her pimp boyfriend), but the songs themselves are narrated by the assholes who abuse and take advantage of them.

The unthinking yuppie of I Love LA, the entitled Hollywood bigshot of My Life is Good (the middle section of that song – the ‘Springsteen’ passage – when Newman lets on that the narrator happens to share his first name and may or may not be himself, is one of the record’s most audacious and funniest passages), the nostalgic racists of Mikey’s and Christmas in Cape Town – these are a grotesque but recognisably human collection of individuals, and they deserve what Newman throws at them. Don’t be fooled by the argument, often used against Randy’s work from Good Old Boys onwards, that these folks are soft targets for Newman’s scorn – not much has changed in 30 years and the world is still full of these people. The shame of it is that while Newman’s doing his stellar soundtrack work, adding to his enormous haul of Oscars and Emmys, he’s not writing more songs like these, and there’s no one else who can do it like him.

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Randy Newman, some time in the eighties


More Than This – Roxy Music

I want to talk about this song’s drum track. When the Great Paul Thompson (as his fans called him) left Roxy Music in 1980, Bryan Ferry, possibly at the suggestion of producer Rhett Davies, did what most musicians in his position would have done: he called in a session player or two to fill the gap. On 1980s Flesh & Blood, one of those players was Andy Newmark. On Avalon, two years later, Newmark would drum on eight out of the album’s ten songs.

It’s hard to go wrong with Andy Newmark. If a drummer’s good enough for Sly Stone (Fresh), John Martyn (One World), John Lennon (Double Fantasy), Laura Nyro (Season of Lights) and Randy Newman (Good Old Boys), he’s good enough for you.

He’s a magnificent player, but seldom a showy one, and his work on More Than This is as unshowy as it gets. A mid-tempo groove, slightly on the brisk side, two and four, bass drum in quavers, no big fills – this is a drummer playing for the song, with just a few interjections (mainly on tom-toms, and short press rolls going into choruses), to make the track his own. Newmark’s judgement about how much to play is perfect, although it’s worth noting that his gig was to come in when the songs had been all but finished, with full arrangements built up over programmed Linn Drum patterns, and either augment or replace the Linn groove. Although playing to pre-recorded songs necessarily puts the drummer in a different position than most are used to – partly because the amount of available space in the arrangement is decided for you, but also because as in this situation the drummer isn’t the song’s engine, as the tempo is locked – it does provide unusual challenges, foremost among them being the insertion of a feel, something other than completely rigid, mechanically perfect eighth notes of unvarying velocity. How much you can swing against the track (a full arrangement, remember) and have the whole thing still work, well, that’s a big part of the game. And Newmark is a master at it.

Of course, session drummers had existed almost as long as there’d been a recording industry (and certainly since rock’n’roll bands started showing up whose songs and/or star quality ran ahead of their musical chops), but in the studio environment of the 1980s, the session drummer suddenly had this whole new avenue of work open up for them (it started with disco really, as consistency of tempo was a big deal in that style) – it wasn’t just about solo artists calling a drummer up to play on their record because they didn’t have a regular band.

The successful ones, like Newmark, adapted themselves brilliantly to this new environment. But evolution was forced on all musicians in the brave new world of automated consoles, polyphonic synths, drum machines, samplers and sequencers. This is a Roxy Music track where Bryan Ferry is dominant almost to point of elbowing out his bandmates completely. Phil Manzanera is present in the intro but is almost immediately pulled right back in the mix, and thereafter pops up now and then to play little variations around his main riff, and only returms in the long fade. Andy MacKay, meanwhile, plays all of seven notes throughout the whole song, all sustained, all easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Whether it was his choice, Ferry’s or Rhett Davies’s, it’s another admirably disciplined and selfless performance on what for my money is the finest song Ferry ever wrote and the best record Roxy ever made.

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Andy Newmark, one of the very, very best

Softly Through the Darkness – Cyrus Faryar

So maybe you’re a fan of folky, acoustic guitar/piano-playing singer-songwriters, but you’re already familiar with the top-division names: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Paul Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Van Morrison and so on. You know them all, and you’ve formed your opinions as to their worth. And maybe you’re well up on your cult songwriters too: Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro, Tim Hardin, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Gram Parsons, Janis Ian – you’ve heard them all, you’ve judged them all. Maybe you’re down with the likes of Fred Neil, Judee Sill and Evie Sands too, and you don’t do the more mainstream likes of John Denver, Don McLean and Dan Fogelberg.

Where can you go? Who to listen to for more of that good stuff?

This is going to be one of this blog’s recurring themes, actually. Because if you’re asking yourself that question, you’d be where I am, fifteen years or so after first beginning to work back through the big names of sixties and seventies singer-songwriterdom. I’m not putting myself forward as any kind of expert in these matters, by the way. I’m just stumbling around in the dark and sharing some of what I blunder into.

A year or so back, shortly before my hospitalisation and diagnosis, I came across mentions of Cyrus Faryar’s solo records on the internet. Not being a Modern Folk Quartet fan, Iranian-American Faryar was previously known to me as a Fred Neil sideman, a dude who played guitar on Fred Neil and Sessions and whose other work was therefore automatically of interest to me. So I downloaded a couple of tracks, one off each of his two records, Cyrus and Islands, to see what Cyrus did on his own.

He didn’t actually move very far from that sound: his is a more pop-minded and carefully arranged take on Neil’s 12-string folk-jazzery, but the similarities are clear. Faryar has a strong, light baritone, not as deep and rich as Neil’s, perhaps more agile and more adaptable, but without as much of that unmistakable charisma. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought so if I hadn’t heard Neil first, but when Faryar hits that low note on the word ‘depart’, it’s impossible not to think of Neil and the many occasions he pulled off the same trick. It’s a good trick, though: if I had the kind of voice to pull it off, I’d do it too.

Perhaps it’s unfair to keep working the Fred Neil angle here (maybe there are elements to Faryar’s music that he inherited from the MFQ, but having only heard their Phil Spector record, I can’t claim familiarity with their real sound – to me, I’m afraid, Henry Diltz is a photographer and Jerry Yester is Tim Buckley’s producer) – but perhaps if he hadn’t slipped into semi-retirement after Sessions, Neil might have taken his music down a similar road to this: drums, (that is, slightly bigger rock drums than those present on Fred Neil), tabla (Colin Walcott?), double bass, organ, strings, woodwinds, choirs – it’s a great sound.

Softly Through the Darkness is a really fine song, too. It is a slow-burner; it begins the album Cyrus (1971), and it feels like it was specifically written to start a record, taking four minutes to unwind and slowly build to its full arrangement, resolving on a wordless chorus of massed voices. Unfortunately on the album it’s immediately undercut by a pretty terrible version of Randy Newman’s I Think He’s Hiding, taken too fast, stomping inelegantly over the tempo and feel changes of the original and with a vocal conveying none of the subtle mockery of Newman’s performance. I understand why a singer might have wanted to take on a song like this, but someone should have nixed it early in the session and suggested he do I Think It’s Going to Rain Today instead.

So Cyrus (the album) isn’t a classic; there’s a couple too many missteps. But there’s four or five strong songs on it (follow-up Islands, produced by John Simon, has a mighty-good version of Neil classic The Dolphins, too) with Darkness being the pick of them, and anyone interested in Fred Neil or this kind of music should check the Faryar’s solo work out – Fred Neil original recordings are, after all, in distressingly short supply.

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The back cover of Cyrus