New­man puts brainy ‘Mat­ter’ to good use

The singer-song­writer pon­ders so­cial is­sues and pol­i­tics on a rare al­bum of new mu­sic.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - mikael.wood@la­times.com MIKAEL WOOD POP MU­SIC CRITIC

We don’t talk enough about Randy New­man as a singer and a maker of pop records.

Oh, we talk plenty about the 73-year-old Los An­ge­les na­tive who’s won Gram­mys and Em­mys and Os­cars and been in­ducted into all the rel­e­vant halls of fame.

But these days the fo­cus tends to be on New­man’s song­writ­ing and com­pos­ing — his ground­break­ing use of un­re­li­able nar­ra­tors, for in­stance, or the eerie pre­science of his song “Louisiana 1927,” which he wrote in the mid-1970s about a great flood try­ing to wash that South­ern state away. (Thirty years later, af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, the tune be­came some­thing of a stan­dard among per­form­ers in New Or­leans.)

To an ex­tent New­man has en­cour­aged this view. Busy with film work, he puts out a new stu­dio al­bum only about once ev­ery decade, and last year he re­leased the lat­est in a series of stripped­down voice-and-pi­ano record­ings of his best-known ma­te­rial.

In 2007 his “A Few Words in De­fense of Our Coun­try,” about the end of the Amer­i­can em­pire, ran as an op-ed in the New York Times — a writerly achieve­ment, no mu­sic re­quired.

Yet even as pop pro­duc­tion has ad­vanced, New­man has kept his skills sharp in a way many of his fel­low vet­er­ans have not. That’s easy to hear — and I do mean hear — on “Dark Mat­ter,” New­man’s first set of new songs since 2008.

Pro­duced with his usual team of Mitchell Froom, Lenny Waronker and David Boucher, it’s a mas­ter­ful col­lec­tion so rich with sonic de­tail that you al­most hope he never gets around to mak­ing “The Randy New­man Song­book Vol. 4.”

The record starts with its most elab­o­rate num­ber in “The Great De­bate,” an eight-minute epic in which New­man stages a noisy pub­lic bat­tle be­tween re­li­gious folks and “some of the most ex­pen­sive sci­en­tists in the world,” as he puts it in a char­ac­ter­is­tic flour­ish of back­handed praise.

They’re gath­ered to hash out the truth about knotty top­ics such as evo­lu­tion and cli­mate change, and as the de­bate jumps around, so too does the mu­sic — from swing­ing New Or­leans jazz to creepy deep-space psychedelia to lively twobeat gospel.

The song should be a chaotic mess, es­pe­cially given that New­man sings the dif­fer­ent parts him­self (and in a sig­na­ture mum­ble that’s be­come only more idio­syn­cratic with age). But he and his stu­dio hands guide the lis­tener care­fully through the changes, paus­ing here for a dra­matic re­set and us­ing sound ef­fects there to sug­gest a man speak­ing into a mi­cro­phone in a crowded arena.

The re­sult is like a lit­tle ra­dio play as so­phis­ti­cated as any high-end pod­cast.

Other tracks are only slightly less am­bi­tious. “Broth­ers” de­picts an imag­ined con­ver­sa­tion be­tween John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby as they dis­cuss the Bay of Pigs In­va­sion — at least un­til it morphs into a lov­ing trib­ute to the late Cuban singer Celia Cruz.

And “Putin” uses var­i­ous Rus­sian musical mo­tifs — all know­ingly crude — to put across a barbed cel­e­bra­tion of the leader who “can power a nu­clear re­ac­tor with the left side of his brain.”

Through­out these songs, ex­pert play­ers in­clud­ing gui­tarist Blake Mills and drum­mer Matt Cham­ber­lain lend dra­matic and emo­tional depth to ideas that might have felt like mere sketches in other hands.

Take “Sonny Boy,” for ex­am­ple, in which New­man re­counts the short life and com­pli­cated legacy of Sonny Boy Wil­liamson, the 1940s blues­man whose iden­tity was later bor­rowed by an­other artist. New­man’s lyric — de­liv­ered, he tells us, from be­yond the grave — is ten­der and funny, with just enough out­rage. But it’s the woozy, dreamy groove that sells the song’s con­ceit.

Not that New­man can’t do dam­age on his own. As usual with one of his records, “Dark Mat­ter” com­ple­ments the top­i­cal stuff with a hand­ful of more osten­si­bly per­sonal bal­lads. And in these you’re re­minded how pow­er­ful a singer he can be — not just a maker of words to be in­ter­preted by Bar­bra Streisand or Neil Di­a­mond (to name two of the many stars who’ve per­formed his songs) but a maker of rhythm and in­flec­tion and vo­cal de­cay.

In the hand­somely or­ches­trated “Lost Without You” he’s a wid­ower re­call­ing an en­counter with his grown chil­dren just be­fore his wife’s death; the com­bi­na­tion of warmth and fear with which he goes back over the wife’s in­struc­tions to the kids — “Make sure he sleeps in his bed at night / Don’t let him sleep in that chair” — is dev­as­tat­ing.

“Dark Mat­ter” closes with an­other weeper in “Wan­der­ing Boy” in which New­man again plays a fa­ther, in this case to a son who’s drifted away from him in adult­hood. Here the mu­sic is sim­ple: just New­man’s voice over the kind of rolling pi­ano ac­com­pa­ni­ment you might hear at last call in an old-Hol­ly­wood ver­sion of an Ir­ish bar.

Yet even at its most straight­for­ward, New­man’s record con­jures a deeply be­liev­able world — one we need more fre­quent in­vi­ta­tions to visit.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

“DARK MAT­TER” is the first al­bum of new ma­te­rial from Randy New­man since 2008. The sage of L.A. song­writ­ing is pic­tured at home in Pa­cific Pal­isades.

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