Roots

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

Dark Mat­ter Randy New­man None­such/Warner Acous­tic Clas­sics Vol. II Richard Thomp­son Beeswing/Planet It’s en­tirely ap­po­site that two of the planet’s most idio­syn­cratic singer-song­writ­ers have new al­bums on the launch pad. Although poles apart style­wise, Los An­ge­les-born and raised Randy New­man and long-time LA-based Richard Thomp­son are su­pe­rior word­smiths and tune­smiths with un­mis­tak­able voices who veer to­wards satire and sar­donic hu­mour. While the Amer­i­can em­broi­ders his rapid-fire verses with rich or­ches­tra­tion and ac­com­plished piano ac­com­pa­ni­ment, the English­man’s wry ob­ser­va­tions are de­liv­ered with im­pres­sively sonorous sing­ing and in­ge­nious gui­tar play­ing.

Co-pro­duced by New­man’s long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor (and for­mer Thomp­son as­so­ciate) Mitchell Froom, Dark Mat­ter is the vet­eran’s first al­bum of new ma­te­rial in nine years and cov­ers con­sid­er­able ground. Sev­eral char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally acer­bic of­fer­ings are in a mixed bag off­set by songs about love and loss that stray too close for com­fort to maudlin sen­ti­men­tal­ity.

New­man’s pen­chant for plac­ing mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives in the same piece while hop­ping gen­res ar­guably reaches a ca­reer apoth­e­o­sis in a partly spo­ken open­ing epic, The Great De­bate, that puts both sides of the sci­ence ver­sus re­li­gion ar­gu­ment while al­ter­nat­ing be­tween Dix­ieland jazz, New Or­leans funk, cabaret and gospel set­tings. While nakedly in­spired by the Rus­sian Pres­i­dent’s propen­sity for bare-chested photo-ops and geopo­lit­i­cal gung-ho, Putin also of­fers con­trast­ing opin­ions, through the aus­pices of a mil­i­tary beat­ac­com­pa­nied ma­cho male cho­rus and play­ful fe­male vo­cals over a lighter swing groove. For the snappy It’s a Jun­gle Out There (with “dis­or­der and con­fu­sion ev­ery­where”), New­man adopts a 1930s’ Cab Cal­loway-style big band jazz ap­proach. A stripped-back song al­lud­ing to the Kennedy brothers and their stand­off with Cuba and Cas­tro morphs into a more ex­pan­sive La­tinised eu­logy to the Cuban singer Celia Cruz. Three years on from the re­lease of his suc­cess­ful Acous­tic Clas­sics al­bum, Vol. II fea­tures an­other set of pre­dom­i­nantly solo ren­der­ings of clas­sic songs from Thomp­son’s sub­stan­tial back cat­a­logue, some pre­vi­ously avail­able solely in a band for­mat or ex­ist­ing only as cover ver­sions. In acous­tic mode, sans ef­fects and sig­nif­i­cant em­bel­lish­ment, the en­dur­ing qual­ity of his com­po­si­tions can be fully ap­pre­ci­ated, as songs from Thomp­son’s teenage days with Fair­port Con­ven­tion back in the late 1960s, Meet on the Ledge and Crazy Man Michael, read­ily at­test. Edgy break-up di­a­tribes such as She Twists the Knife Again and Why Must I Plead?, from cher­ished 80s/90s al­bums, are as po­tent acous­ti­cally as in their orig­i­nal am­pli­fied state. If any­thing, ac­ri­mo­nious lines such as “never leaves me my dig­nity / makes a dunce of me in mixed com­pany” and “all your bit­ter­ness and lies / st­ing like tears in my eyes”, are ac­cen­tu­ated in this starker set­ting.

Equally com­pelling are the up­dated un­plugged ver­sions of more re­cent bib­li­cally ref­er­enced odes Bathsheba Smiles and Geth­se­mane.

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