WEEKEND RECAP: Lana Del Rey, Pop Tease; Let Us Now Praise Randy Newman

"My boyfriend's back, and he's cooler than ever/there's no more night, blue skies forever" whispers Lana Del Rey on the title track of her upcoming fifth album, getting high with a little help from The Weeknd, before crooning, "Take off, take off, take off all your clothes......" And there lies the walking contradiction that is Del Rey: she wants to embrace the girl-group ethos of the 60's, so much so, she isn't afraid to name check a song by The Angels, yet not content with that genre's innocence/naivete, she pushes the envelope by pleading for something a little more carnal. So when she says "A lust for life keeps us alive" you find yourself thinking less Iggy Pop, and more Claudine Longet. 

Actually, the Longet analogy is fitting on more levels than one might realize - strip away the contemporary sonic trappings, and you will find the simplicity of 60's pop ingenues Longet, Sinatra (Nancy) and even Petula Clark. The album's lead single "Love" could easily have been performed by Clark herself if written back in the day: a song that celebrates youthful innocence while implying a pop critique, "You get ready, you get all dressed up/To go nowhere in particular/Look at you kids, you know you're the coolest/It's enough to be young and in love....don't worry baby." Ooops! Another vintage 60's lyric bomb! What Del Rey lacks in subtlety, she makes up for in chutzpah. And while she continues to be quite the tease regarding exactly when Lust For Life will land (which some have hypothesized was the result of "Love" being leaked via the Internet before its intended release date), Del Rey's Twitter feed dangles the proverbial carrot in front of the noses of her loyal throng.

What should be patently obvious however, even to the Del Rey faithful, is that Lust For Life will be anything but a sonic U-turn from previous albums Honeymoon (2015) or Ultraviolence (2014), despite the presence of such unlikely accomplices as Sean Lennon, who took to his own Twitter page to remark, "The 'ingredients' she puts in look very fascinating." Add to that the music video for "Lust For Life", featuring The Weeknd (real name: Abel Tesfaye) and Del Rey making kissy faces atop the "H" of the HOLLYWOOD sign, overlooking the City of Angels, and you can be sure Lust For Life will give both fans and music critics precisely what they've come to expect. When it comes to artifice, if it aint broke - work it like a rented mule.

Let Us Now Praise The Randy Newman Songbook

Finding your niche as the go-to soundtrack composer for Disney's Pixar division isn't exactly a career-defining moment for Randy Newman - looking at his contributions to the animated features Monsters, Inc. to A Bug's Tale to the entire Toy Story franchise, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that his journey as a film score composer actually began in 1971. Newman was commissioned by tv sitcom pioneer Norman Lear to write the score for his motion picture debut - a scathing indictment of Big Tobacco appropriately-titled Cold Turkey. Since that time, Newman's name has appeared on 24 motion picture credits, many of which may surprise you: Ragtime (1981), The Natural (1984), Awakenings (1990), Pleasantville (1998), as well as the Ben Stiller comedies Meet The Parents (2000) and Meet The Fockers (2004).

Even more surprising is the fact that Randy Newman's music was a fixture on television decades before Lear ever came on the scene - his work graced the series Dobie Gillis, Peyton Place, Voyage To The Bottom of The Sea and the camp sci-fi classic, Lost In Space, among others. But soundtrack composer-for-hire pedigree aside, Newman's true genius lies in the oft deified singer/songwriter milieu. During the 70's and 80's in particular, Newman's songwriter output contains many stellar moments - the results of which provided the genre with some of its most affecting tunes. In 2003, after signing onto the Nonesuch music label, The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 was released; this was no "greatest hits" compilation however, as Newman revisited his back catalog, stripping down the performances to just his piano and voice. It is here that you realize the genius that is Randy Newman, songwriter.

Like contemporaries Mose Allison and Leon Russell, Newman has a penchant for pointed lyricism and New Orleans, swamp-boogie piano phrasing. On "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" Newman observes, "I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee/From the squalor and the filth to the misery/How we laugh up here in Heaven at the prayers you offer me." The even-edgier "Rednecks" takes no prisoners, right from its opening salvo "Last night, I saw Lester Maddox on a tv show/With some smart-ass New York Jew...." to the ballsy refrain, "we're keeping the niggers down." Mind you, if Newman dared to write or perform that song now, despite its obvious anti-racism message, he'd become fodder for a Twitter crucifixion just for dropping the N-bomb. This is what makes Newman more daring than most: in some respects, he emulates the "smart-ass New York Jew" with his sly sarcasm - inflicting liberal views upon seemingly easy targets;  however, the acerbic lyricism often takes the POV of the antagonist (as on "Rednecks"), causing Newman's commentary to become barbed and unsettling in the process.

Eight years would pass before Nonesuch released Vol.2 - this compilation showcases Newman's more introspective side: from the autobiographical "Dixie Flyer" (which chronicles his early childhood living in New Orleans - the source of his artistic muse) and "The Girls In My Life (Part 1)" to the wistful tunes "Losing You" ("When you're young, and there's time to forget the past/You don't think that you will, but you do/But I know I don't have time enough....") and "Baltimore" (the latter tune appeared on Newman's benchmark Little Criminals album, and was covered in a reggae-tinged interpretation by Nina Simone.) Finally, came Vol.3  (which arrived last Fall): it included his 70's radio hit "Short People" (ironically, controversy arose upon that track's initial release, because some folks couldn't figure out the song was against prejudice, and not against the vertically-challenged), the Oscar-nominated "You've Got A Friend In Me" (from Toy Story),  and the rollicking "I Love L.A.", whose star-studded, satirically on-point music video gained popularity through MTV (who couldn't see the video was a critique of the genre itself). His studio debut for Nonesuch (2008's underrated Harps and Angels) is represented by the bonus track, "A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country", a tune that could easily bookend "Political Science" (from his '72 release, Sail Away), by turns satirical and thought-provoking.

All three installments can now be obtained, via a remarkable boxed set. The Randy Newman Songbook: The Complete Solo Recordings (Nonesuch) consolidates these offerings, making for a fitting anthology and overview of Newman's work. It also stands as the definitive testament to the brilliance of Randy Newman's songcraft. What becomes evident while poring over the collection is that, although Newman's name doesn't generally come to mind when you think of great piano players, Randy's playing goes beyond mere serviceability: it isn't easy to sustain an album's worth of tunes with just your voice and a piano, much less three (just ask either Dr. or Elton John), but the box set is a treasure trove for those who not only appreciate Newman's songwriting, but for appreciators of singer/songwriter compendiums, period. While Newman's catalog has provided hits for everyone from Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield, to Bette Midler, Judy Collins, Tom Jones, Lynn Anderson, Art Garfunkel and Wilson Pickett, what The Complete Solo Recordings makes clear is that Newman has always been in a class by himself: a talent whose unique voice and philosophical outlook is what memorable songwriting is truly all about.


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