Tuesday, February 5, 2008

No. 354: 12 Songs

Band: Randy Newman
Album: 12 Songs
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Randy Newman's second record is an exercise in copping personalities. Newman's sardonic wit is, of course, evident in the songwriting as he appears -- at times -- to be somewhere between Frank Zappa and Steve Albini. Also, Ry Cooder, who may or may not be hung like a donkey.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'm not the world's biggest fans of Newman's arrangements. He's certainly the best piano troubadour I can find (better even than Elton John), but he's still a piano troubadour.
Best song: "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" is a what Dylan and the Band wanted to do on the "Basement Tapes." It's almost blues perfectly executed. "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" is much better than the Three Dog Night version, but I still don't love it.
Worst song: "Yellow Man" is, uh, I'm not really sure.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

Turnabout is fair play and I should probably apply the same standards to Randy Newman (an artist I enjoy) to artists I don't enjoy (Billy Joel or Dire Straits this week).

So, in the effort of fairness, I'll suggest that "12 Songs" is troubling in the way that Newman cops characters out of his own background. The great example, of course, is "Yellow Man." On the surface, it has no point, but as Allmusic points out, the song is a relfection on Newman's views on racism. It's silly and it makes no sense, as the song does. It's not Newman's clearest thing, but it is good, nonetheless.

Newman, of course, sings regular old rock and roll well. "Lucinda" is a pleasant 12-bar blues record and "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" is a rave-up of sorts and "Rosemary" has the sound of Memphis soul.

"Old Kentucky Home" is great storytelling episode, built around irony and a pretty little guitar/piano lick. Like the Velvet Underground's masterpiece "Who Loves The Sun," "Old Kentucky Home" is a musical optimistic romp and lyrically is despotic and mean. It's a wonderful juxtaposition and one that Newman often juggles with aplomb.


I'd be lying if I said I loved piano-based nonsense. I don't. Randy Newman, however, is on another planet. He's an amazing songwriter and uses humor in a way that nearly no other songwriter does (save for maybe Zappa).

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