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.