Tag Archives: Trouble in Paradise

Matthew Caws @ The Islington/Randy Newman @ the Royal Festival Hall

Two gigs in 48 hours, in venues as vastly different as is possible.

On Saturday night I went with Mel and Sara to see Matthew Caws from Nada Surf play a free show at the Islington, announced via his Instagram the day before. The Islington is a tiny venue, with a capacity of maybe 100. I’ve played drums there with Sumner, and it was the place I saw Jon Auer play a wonderful set in August 2014.

It was a really great night. I’m not yet that familiar with his work, although I’ve heard most of Nada Surf’s records, and Get There, the record he made with Juliana Hatfield as Minor Alps. It’s a testament to the quality of his writing, then, that I recognised tracks like See These Bones, Maxon, Your Legs Grow, Ice on the Wing and Always Love in a stripped down, voice-and-guitar setting having heard the recorded originals no more than a few times each.

Nada Surf passed me by in their early years – I know they had a big MTV hit with Popular, but I’ve not knowingly heard it; if he had played it on Saturday, I wouldn’t have recognised it. At this stage of his career, Caws is a world away from MTV Beach House, son-of-Weezerisms. Without getting ponderous or self-serious, his songs have become deeper and richer, his voice remains supple and boyish, and his impressive guitar playing (several songs switched between neat fingerpicking and flatpick strumming) is all he really needs to put the songs over; See These Bones, the last song he played on Saturday, was no less impressive than its recorded counterpart, with nothing lost in translation from full band to solo arrangement.

If it wasn’t quite the experience for me that seeing Jon Auer was, that’s only because I don’t have the long relationship with Matthew Caws’s music that I have with Auer’s work with the Posies. Sara, who is a long-time fan, had a similar experience that I had with the Auer gig, I think, and Mel, who wasn’t familiar with him at all, left intrigued and wanting to hear more.

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On Monday night, I headed to the rather more august Royal Festival Hall with James and Dan McKean to see Randy Newman.

I’ve not seen too many shows by real veterans. The old guys I see tend to be 40- or 50-something, not 70-something like Newman. His voice, never smooth in his youth, is now a somewhat limited instrument. The effect of this was the opposite of what you might expect. It gave his ballads a fragility that was at times heartbreaking – She Chose Me (a song from Steve Bochco’s Cop Rock, of all things) was a genuine goosebump moment – but hampered the delivery of the ragtimey, satirical songs, which were more declaimed than sung, with the phrasing lacking just a little of the subtlety of the originals.

However, this was a set lasting over two hours (with a 20-minute interval), with time for Newman to play some 30-odd songs (and give us a lot of, uniformly hilarious, anecdotes), and the duds were few and far between. There weren’t many top-tier Newman songs that didn’t get an airing: I Miss You, God’s Song, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, I Love LA, Birmingham, Marie, Short People, You’ve Got a Friend in Me, Political Science, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Losing You, the stupendous Louisiana 1927, Sail Away, and even the seldom-performed Rednecks (because of its use of the N-word; Newman took pains to explain the character and perspective he adopts within the song, which is something he doesn’t otherwise do).

Shorn of their band arrangements, some of the songs did fall a little flat. I adore I Love LA and have defended its parent album here, but without that triumphant synth riff and triumphalist backing vocals, the song is not what it could otherwise be. Similarly, My Life is Good without the blowhard’s increasingly agitated protests at the end (“My life is good, you old bag!”) as the music gets subtly more dissonant is only half the song. Why not forgo it and play something more suited to a voice-and-piano presentation, like Dayton, Ohio-1903 or He Gives Us All His Love?

Minor quibbles, really.

James once said to me, about the experience of watching Paul McCartney, that after a while, you just stand there in amazement that one man wrote all these songs, and that one man is standing up there singing them. That’s how Monday was for me. I’d give pretty much anything to write a song as good as Louisiana 1927. Hell, to write Short People, even. Newman is one of the greatest, a guy that pretty much every songwriter looks up to in the knowledge that they can’t play on the turf he’s playing on. I got to see him, playing all those songs. It was quite something.

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This guy

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On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 – Rickie Lee Jones

It’s obvious why a young Tom Waits fan would have picked Rickie Lee Jones out of the four-for-£20 rack in Leigh-on-Sea’s Fives record shop 10 or so years ago. Jones, I knew, had been in a relationship with Waits at the start of her career, and I’d heard that her music mined similar territory to Waits’s, with storytelling lyrics drawing on a life spent within a Los Angeles beatnik demi-monde that had somehow still magically existed in the era of The Long Run and the Nervous Breakdown EP.

I was disappointed. While it contains some great songs, Rickie Lee Jones’s debut is a bit of a mess. The heavy-hitting Warner Brothers production team, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, had assembled an awesome array of instrumental talent* to play on her album, the same session kings that also featured on mid- to late-seventies records by LA titans like Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and Randy Newman (including Newman himself). But as with Joni’s Wild Things Run Fast, the result – heavy on tinkly electric piano and, gasp, slap bass – was polite and bland. On low points like Young Blood, musicians run through their licks but seem to exist in a different world to Jones’s vocal. I can’t imagine the demo to that one wasn’t hugely superior.

(In full disclosure, the Waits records of this era that use electric band arrangements, such as Blue Valentine, are a similar turn-off to me; if Waits is in jazzbo mode, I want double bass and acoustic piano and nothing else will do. I love those sounds in the context of Steely Dan and Newman’s Trouble in Paradise, though, so make of this what you will.)

That wasn’t the only problem, though. Jones wasn’t writing uniformly strong melodies (her songs have never really found favour with other performers, especially compared to those of a certain other songwriter I should probably stop mentioning at this point) and her drawled vocals sometimes sounded less like jazz and more like pastiche or like an idea of jazz. In fairness, this was her debut and she hadn’t had time to grow into herself or her persona yet; even with as sympathetic producer as Waronker at the helm, she couldn’t help but come off as callow.

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 is, then, the standout moment on the album, Chuck E’s in Love aside. Certainly it’s the song that has the biggest emotional wallop. Recorded live at TBS a month after the main tracking sessions for the record, and like After Hours (the other song recorded this supplementary session) featuring only piano, vocal and strings, it benefits hugely from its sparse arrangement and straightforward vocal performance. Jones sounds, appropriately given the song’s themes, more at home here. I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.

So many successful songs work this way, because the writer paired the right phrase with the right snippet of melody. Maybe some tunes are so charged with inherent meaning that they lead the writer to pick the correct lyric to pair them with. Fortunately for Jones and for her listeners, when this tune spoke to her, she listened.

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RLJ, Best New Artist Grammy in hand, doesn’t need to care what I think of her debut record

*Let me run through some of the credits for you: Dr John, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, Victor Feldman, Tom Scott, Steve Gadd, Buzz Feiten, Andy Newmark, Jeff Porcaro, Willie Weeks and, inevitably, Michael Boddicker. Some of these guys are among my favourite players ever. I’ve written about almost all of them in glowing terms elsewhere on this blog.

I Think He’s Hiding – Randy Newman

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with extra days at work and such, and I’m going to be even more pushed for time over the next week or so. I’m heading home tomorrow morning to sunny Essex for the always-excellent Leigh Folk Festival so my usual Sunday post is going to have to be early. Next Friday I’m heading to Umbria with Mel for a long weekend of hilltop villages and awesome food. I’ll post something on Wednesday or Thursday before I go, but then you’ll be on your own until the following Wednesday or Thursday when I’m back and settled back into a normal working routine. In the meantime, I’m aware I’m falling back on favourite artists I’ve written about before, but it helps me to keep up a reasonable pace if I can write about something I’ve already listened to many times and digested properly. And any great artist deserves whole books, not just a couple of blog posts! I could write about some of these folks every week for a year, although I don’t know how many of you would still be here if I did.

Randy Newman has no heir in popular music. He stands alone. There may be songwriters who are funny, some who have his sense of the grotesque (Tom Waits owes his post-Swordfish career to just one Newman song: Davy the Fat Boy); there are people who can write orchestra movie soundtracks, others who can write one-off title songs to order. Newman can do it all. And of the funny songwriters, there’s none funnier, not Steely Dan, not 10CC, not Terry Allen, not Warren Zevon (perhaps the closest rock has come to a second Randy Newman, though he had nothing like the musical range of the original), and certainly not those who explicitly set themselves up as comic songwriters.

As the late Ian McDonald argued, Newman’s first album, from 1968, finds him already fully formed as an artist. The control of the orchestra was there. The talent for satire was there. The compression of meaning and incident into viable rock lyrics was there. It won him the instant admiration of his peers. They all seemed to appreciate that this guy was doing something they couldn’t, and many tried recording his songs. Harry Nilsson, who didn’t need to take songwriting lessons off anyone, cut a whole album’s worth.

But his songs defy those who would cover them. As good as Newman’s words are on paper, they come alive in performance, but only his performance can bring them to their full potential. As croaky and ungainly as his voice may be on a technical level, he’s alive to every possibility of the phrasing and delivery in the words he writes.

In the early seventies, Clive James wrote a series of columns about rock music for Cream magazine, concentrating mainly on lyrics. He tackled Dylan, the Beatles, Sandy Denny, the Band, Randy Newman and Van Morrison among others. His highest praise, in terms of lyrics, was reserved for the Band’s Robbie Robertson and Newman. I’ll leave the analysis to him: he’s covers it all, more clearly than I could.

Consider I Think He’s Hiding: Newman has got his attentive absorption of cliché and his definitive sense of order both working at once. The clichés, delivered in a voice strangling with piety, create a world of pin-brained religious fear and smug certitude. The redeemer, alias the Big Boy, is called upon to return and sort the elect from the damned. But underneath the cretinous invocation of the holy name, Newman’s irony is subversively at work. ‘Come on Big Boy,’ sings the narrator: ‘Come and save us.’ There is a flurry of melisma on the word ‘save’, giving an idiotic air of devotions confidently sung in church or synagogue. ‘Come and look at what we’ve done,’ he adds, and we can hear Newman’s own judgements coming to the fore – he isn’t entirely impressed with mankind’s achievements. But there’s a capper: ‘With what you gave us.’ So the fault’s the Big Boy’s. After all, it’s the Big Boy who’s claiming to be omnipotent.

James is not going overboard here. Everything that he finds in the lyric is in there, and that’s a hell of a lot of content. Most impressively, Newman’s not beating us over the head with 10-dollar words; there isn’t one word in the verse he quotes with more than one syllable.

Newman’s solo albums would never again be as orchestrated, as 1940s-sounding, as his debut; from his second album onwards, he’d work within an idiom that more obviously had something to do with rock music. Yet his lyrics would remain as sharp for at least a decade, slackening only at the end of the seventies. And even after that, he retained the power to shock and surprise, as on, for example, Trouble in Paradise’s Christmas In Cape Town, another in a long line of devastating anti-racism songs. I’ve written about that album elsewhere. Click here for more Newman talk.

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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