In the weeks and months immediately following Hurricane Katrina, the ubiquity of Randy Newman's heartwrenching song "Louisiana 1927" started to seem just plain mean. It ran as a constant musical background for human-interest stories about the ravages of the flood and the neglect of the federal government. NPR broadcast a feature on Newman and the song originally released on his 1974 album Good Ole Boys by the end of the first week of September 2005. Aaron Neville had a nearly sold-out Madison Square Garden audience in tears with his angelic performance of the tune at a huge benefit concert that took place a few weeks after the flood. The barrage of Newman's poignant lyrics and hushed phrasing "Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline" emanating from TV and radio had legions of evacuees dehydrated from snotty weeping fits in the motel rooms and on the relatives' couches where they stared like zombies at CNN for more hours per day than could possibly have been good for anyone. Thanks, Randy Newman.
Since the early '90s, Newman has been most prominent as the avuncular voice singing original songs for children's films like Toy Story and Cars, as well as the theme song for the cable TV sitcom Monk. His last studio release, 2005's The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 2, is a compilation of his extensive work as a film score composer. He also contributed a version of "Blue Monday" to last year's star-studded Fats Domino tribute album, Goin' Home. Far from being a friendly old piano man, though, Newman one of the finest, slyest American songwriting talents of the 20th century spent most of his career making a name for himself with songs that were borderline offensive, curmudgeonly or just plain creepy.
Randy Newman emerged in the early '70s among a loose group of singer/songwriter talents based in the California hipster enclave of Laurel Canyon who found early homes at the Warner Bros./Reprise and Asylum labels. The group included folk-rockers like Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and a very young Tom Waits.
Newman's boogie piano is drenched in Louisiana R&B and swamp pop sounds. His mother is from New Orleans, and Newman spent many childhood vacations here. His songwriting has a sweet, vintage pop slickness tipped with venom so wry that would-be detractors are often too confused to cry foul. Songs like "Rednecks," "I Love L.A." and most famously "Short People" skewer ignorance, yuppies and bigotry with inscrutable sincerity. There are tracks like "Under the Harlem Moon" and "Yellow Man" that perfectly mimic Tin Pan Alley-style writing but with racial sentiments that had not been appropriate since the heyday of Tin Pan Alley.
Although his talent is now mostly in the service of Pixar monsters and movie projects, Newman (who is likely laughing all the way to the bank) still has as much finesse expressing powerful, understated emotion as with "Louisiana 1927," or the quietly devastating "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today" as he does with deadpan leg-pullers like "Mama Told Me Not to Come." His latest tour de force is in the vein of the latter. The iTunes-released single, 2006's "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," also published as an op-ed piece in The New York Times, is a backhanded compliment. Its lyrics straight-facedly praise America under President George W. Bush for not being quite as bad as the last Roman emperors, Stalin or the Spanish Inquisition.
4 p.m. thursday, may 1 | gentilly stage
- Randy Newman's work has ranged from the heartwrenching "Louisiana 1927" to the cherrily smug "Short People."