- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Randy Newman

Harps & AngelsNonesuch Records

I first learned about the art of deadpan from Randy Newman. His 1977 hit “Short People” was in heavy rotation on the syndicated novelty-song radio broadcast “The Dr. Demento Show.”

As a young and very tall teenager, I thought “Short People” was funny because … well, because it made fun of short people. It was only later in life, when I learned that Mr. Newman himself was about 5½ feet tall, that I understood that the surface-level comedy was a con job — a bit of misdirection designed as a wrapper for the deeper meaning within.

Now 64, Mr. Newman still has an acid wit, and his peculiar brand of misanthropy seems particularly well-matched to today’s history-making times. On his new album, “Harps & Angels,” Mr. Newman turns his arched eyebrow to the contemporary political scene — an unusual move for an artist whose satire has always had a timeless quality. The song “A Few Words” already is an online hit. Its full title is “A Few Words In Defense of My Country,” and its lyrics were published as an Op-Ed column in the New York Times (except for a passage about the Supreme Court that questions the ethnic authenticity of certain justices). It’s a gently swaying country piece that blends a sweetly rolling piano line undergirded by strings and pedal steel guitar. Mr. Newman sings, “I’d like to say a few words in defense of our country/ Its people aren’t bad, nor are they mean/Now the leaders we have, while they’re the worst we’ve had/ Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen.”

It’s satire, yes. Yet the friendly tone of “A Few Words” makes it more biting and effective satire than the woolly-headed, utopian warblings of, say, Sheryl Crow.

The song “Korean Parents,” however, promises to re-inflame any pieties soothed by “A Few Words.” It opens with a litany of complaints about contemporary America (“Kids today got problems like their parents never had/ Neighborhoods are dangerous, the public schools are bad”) before breaking into a generically Asian-sounding theme against which Mr. Newman reveals his quick fix for a society that has lost its respect for authority and achievement. He sings, “Korean parents for sale/ You say you need a little discipline/ Someone to whip you into shape/They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair.”

The joke here isn’t on the immigrant parents of high-achieving students but on the public’s pernicious desire for quick fixes to intractable problems. The song is sure to raise hackles nonetheless.

With “Harps & Angels,” the songs are presented in an intimate, conversational way that feels almost live. The title track tells the story of a dying New Orleans boozehound whose path to heaven is blocked by a clerical error of celestial proportions.

Elsewhere, “A Piece of the Pie” uses a frenetic, occasionally dissonant modernist sound to convey a sense of economic insecurity — and on “Easy Street,” a Dixieland clarinet and stride piano give that song a deceptively friendly feel even as it skewers the privilege that accompanies fame.

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