Sometime during 1991 I tuned into Randy Newman's music in full force, the result of – if memory serves – a “Greatest Albums” list by Rolling Stone that included Newman’s 1972 release, Sail Away. I’d heard Newman before – a song of his was included in the movie Parenthood, I recalled the gimmicky “Short People,” and most recently I’d fallen in love with his magnificent score to Barry Levinson’s Avalon, still among my favorite movies ever and whose main character my son was named after – but delving into a full-length album (if one can call thirty minutes “full-length”) was a whole new experience. I was in love. Within a year I purchased three additional Newman CDs and watched him perform at the Fine Line in Minneapolis, a solitary expedition as no one else I knew had even heard of Newman, much less wanted to see him. This was probably for the best, as I didn’t want anyone screwing up the experience of hearing Randy sing “Real Emotional Girl” by talking or laughing or otherwise mucking up my musical bliss. (For the record, when Randy played the aforementioned song, you could hear a pin drop – a good audience).
Shortly after hearing Sail Away I began to dissect what made a Newman song sound like a Newman song aside from the croaking voice and sardonic lyrics. I messed around with the chromatic runs and dissonant chords Newman uses and mimicked some of the harmonic phrases he leans on. The result? At least one Newman-esque song on nearly every one of my albums.
The first was “The Wild Child” off of my very first cassette recording back in – not coincidentally – 1992:
Then came “Tell it Like it Is” in 1996...
...followed by “We Are Two” in 1999.
Most recently, I recorded “Long Day,” a Newman rip-off if there ever was one:
To say Newman’s albums influenced my writing would be a little like saying The Band influenced Marc Cohn. Hell, I even wrote a short story (a favorite of my writings) in which Randy Newman plays a central role. Check out the conclusion to “Nosebleed.”
Now, at age 73, Newman has released Dark Matter, an album that returns to form after the somewhat lackluster Harps and Angels in 2008. The first four songs are gems, and the rest of the album is good too, though Newman pilfers his past with a song from the TV show Cop Rock (remember that show?) and another from Monk. Yes, he plays the same harmonies he's played for the past forty years – the final section of the opening track is almost a carbon copy of the song "Glory Train" from Faust – but there's enough going on here to keep your interest. I was working out at XSport Fitness while listening to the album for the first time, and I laughed out loud during "The Great Debate" and then nearly cried during the middle section of "Lost Without You." This is what's always set Newman apart from other writers. Yes, he can be witty and make you chuckle, but when he wants to, he can place you in another man's shoes and make you ache for him, or maybe it's an ache for yourself.
As Newman says in this excellent interview, that's the purpose of music. To make you feel. Period. Mission accomplished.