Randy Newman – I discovered Newman through Harry Nilsson (coming very soon) on an early album called Nilsson sings Newman. Of course, Harry has a beautiful voice, where Randy is – sardonic, quite nasal and not beautiful – but you don’t listen to Randy for the beauty of his voice but for the expression, the emotion in his voice; much like Dylan of course. A superb musician who as well as releasing a clutch of singer-songwriter albums moved largely into film soundtracks, most famously Toy Story and Shreck. But he started off in the late 60’s with his eponymous album Randy Newman in 1968. The album was unusual for the times, being mostly orchestral. It was in fact a resume of songs he had written for others over the previous few years. The songs are mostly short (the entire album is just 27 minutes long) but oh, so memorable. Possibly his best songs are here but that is a retrospective view. The album flopped so badly he was lucky to record a second. But it is simply wonderful and includes ‘Love Story’, ‘Living Without You’ and ‘Cowboy’ but really, I love all the songs, even the quite nasty sounding ‘Davy The Fat Boy’. You see Randy was a master at irony, at taking a hard right-wing view of the world – only to show up how stupid that is. Often misunderstood, but loved by those of us understood his particular take on the world. Two years later and he released another short album 12 songs. This had more conventional rock backings but somehow it doesn’t really work; his vocals seem lost in there and the meaning of the words doesn’t hit home. A couple of good songs – ‘Yellow Man’, ‘Mama Told me Not To Come’ and ‘Old Kentucky Home’ – though these were usually better sung by others. So, possibly my least favourite of his records. And I might have left him there but in 1972 (possibly the best year ever for music) there were rave reviews for Newman’s third record Sail Away – and I bought it. And wow – what a record, by far his Masterpeice – it is simply wonderful. A much more thoughtful production where the backing is sympathetic to his vocals and never overpowering. And the songs are simply brilliant too, not a poor song or a fill on the record. Hard to pick a favourite, though the title song is simply sublime; also excellent are ‘Last Night I Had A Dream’, ‘Political Science’ and the closer ‘God’s Song’. I could and would listen to this record over and over again – it is that good. Good Old Boys came out 2 years later – and again a very satirical album depicting Rednecks and Southerners with their stupid ideas, though he also pokes his accusing finger at those who think that the blacks have been freed in the North (free to be put in chains in New York City). Another brilliant album – best songs are ‘Rednecks’, ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Louisiana 1927’ – but again there isn’t a poor song on the album. Another triumph really, though appreciated by many his albums still sold quite poorly. I977 saw the release of another superb album Little Criminals. His sense of irony being superb – the lead off single ‘Short People’ being a metaphor for blacks was superb. Again the whole record just rolls along – almost impossible to pick best songs. The arrangements too are simply sublime and Randy’s melodies seem truly timeless. Possibly ‘Jolly Coppers On Parade’, ‘Rider In The Rain’, and ‘Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation Of Albert Einstein In America’ stand out. Born Again came out in 1979 and was somewhat of a disappointment – it sold poorly and had bad reviews. Saying that it isn’t a bad album, but somehow some of that earlier magic had gone. The arrangements were more rocky, and at time Randy was shouting rather than singing; maybe trying too hard to be a rock star – who knows. A handful of good songs – ‘The Story of A Rock and Roll Band’ (about ELO) and ‘The Girls In My Life’ and ‘Half A Man’ but a few stinkers. A pity really. A welcome return to form in 1983 was Trouble In Paradise. This was a much more self-aware album, especially the title songs which was really self-critical. But overall the songs were much better. The title track was a half-spoken denunciation of the ‘Rock-Star’ lifestyle (even name checking Springsteen – in a good way). There is a duet with Paul Simon ‘The Blues’ which is very witty and beautifully sung. There are a couple of sumptuous love songs and some biting satire – but possibly best of all is a wonderful melody and fabulous words which I cant help sing along to – ‘I’m Different’, which is simply charming. So a very good album only slightly marred by a couple of shouty songs. A long break from solo albums as he concentrated on film soundtracks. But he returned in great form with 1988’s Land Of Dreams. Very autobiographical, about his childhood and love and family break-ups. A lovely record with some great songs, almost marred by a hiphop parody which is actually superb but quite out of place on the record. Best songs ‘Dixie Flyer’, ‘Falling In Love’ and sad closer ‘I Want You To Hurt Like I Do.’ My final album of his (though I have just ordered another) Harps and Angels released in 2008 and a much more conventional Newman album. His voice is in quite good form too, and the production is more suited to it. But unfortunately, the songs don’t really hack it, they don’t stand out so well; only three songs are in any way memorable – ‘Losing You’ (about his first wife), ‘Feels Like Home’ and ‘A Few Words In Defence Of My Country’ (even though this theme has been addressed several times before. So, a bit of a disappointment. I also have a compilation which covers his first stretch of albums; Lonely At The Top is a pretty good collection of his best songs and a pleasure to revisit – a good place for beginners to start.
Michael Nesmith – one of The Monkees, and a superb musician, singer and songwriter who sadly passed away a few days ago. I started listening to his albums in 1970 and have many but not all of them, though a couple are still on order. Magnetic South was his first post Monkees record and it couldn’t be more different. It is almost pure country but with a slight pop sensibility and a witty wordplay and a beautiful high ringing voice. Magnetic South was credited to The First National Band as Nesmith didn’t want to capitalise on his Monkees persona. I’ve grown to love the record over the years – the songs have a timelessness and seem pristine compared to most of what was recorded in 1970. ‘Joanne’ was a minor hit but I also love ‘Calico Girlfriend’ and ‘ Beyond The Blue Horizon’. He followed this the same year with Loose Salute, which fared even less well commercially, which I don’t think bothered the contrary Nesmith at all. He had money from his time on the show and never seemed to hanker after fame; he was looking for some sort of purity in the songs and the sound, which I think he mostly achieved. Best on this one are ‘Thanks For the Ride’, ‘I Fall To Pieces’ and ‘Hello Lady’. Not quite as good in my mind as magnetic South but it still sound good over 50 years later. 1971 saw his third release as The First National Band – Nevada Fighter. Though this sunk even deeper it was I think the best of his early three. The songs seem better, even those Michael did not write. It is again pure country but not really, there is a different vibe going through the songs too. Top marks for a song entitled ‘Propinquity’ – but I also like ‘Texas Morning’ and ‘Tumbling Tumbleweed’ and Nesmith’s version of ‘Rainmaker’ by Harry Nilsson (see N). Prolific seems to be an understatement as the first of 2 releases in 1972 was Tantamount To Treason. Credited to the Second National Band, the album veers into new territory; there is still a country vibe but sound effects and weird instrumentation and almost psychedelic moods pop up here and there. Not sure is it really works but the 3 new members of the band maybe allowed Mike to experiment a bit. Best tracks are ‘She Thinks I Still Care’, ‘Rose City Chimes’ and ‘Lazy Lady’. Not sure where Nesmith was going with this – but he has always forged his own idiosyncratic path, seemingly oblivious to the demands of record company or fans. Late 1972 saw a more traditional Nesmith offering (and only credited to him this time) – And The Hits Just Keep On Coming – which was a riposte to the record company’s repeatedly ignored demands for a hit. Apparently these were all songs Mike wrote while in The Monkees but never really recorded until now. A sparse arrangement and an acoustic feel dominate the record, which allows the haunting melancholy of his voice to permeate. Some pretty good songs again – ‘Distant Drum’, ‘The Upside of Goodbye’ and ‘Harmony Constant’ are superb. His last real country album I suppose was his sixth – 1973’s Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. And this is almost his best – the songs diverging from pure country into somewhere else where they simply exist. Best are ‘Winonah’, ‘Some Of Shelley’s Blues’ and ‘Prairie Lullaby’. Some may say that these albums were pretty indulgent – certainly they sold poorly, which seemed to bother Nesmith not at all. Michael left his record company and dabbled with writing and film music and got into music videos and related digital music as the years went by. I lost touch with him in some ways until I caught up with a compilation entitled ‘The Newer Stuff’ but I also have an early compilation of his first 6 albums called The Masters. No surprises but an excellent overview of these early years. But The Newer Stuff was a revelation. He was branching out into a far more modern sound, multi-layered and sometimes complex; the same haunting melodies and humour laden lyrics. This CD contains a handful of tracks from his later albums and a few unreleased ones. Best are, of course, the fabulous ‘Rio’ and ‘Carioca’ – but I also love ‘Total Control’ and ‘Formosa Diner’. In fact, this has grown into my favourite Nesmith record. I then went back and bought From a Radio Engine To The Photon Wing (1977). This had ‘Rio on but also ‘Casablanca Moonlight’ and the lovely whimsical ‘Navaho Trail’. There are still country influences but a wider more modern sound too. A very nice record. I followed that with Infinite Rider On The Big Dogma (1979). All the songs have single word titles – best are ‘Magc’, ‘Cruisin’ and ‘Carioca’. Again a more modern – almost disco – record. But likeable too. Finally I bought Tropical Campfires, a late career release after a 13 year absence. And a very subtle and quiet record; the vocals are remarkable and the songs haunting and yet at the same time not quite so memorable. Mike also records a couple of Cole Porter songs and a couple of writing collaborations. Not my very favourite record but still pretty good. Best songs – ‘Brazil’, ‘Rising In Love’ and ‘Moon Over The Rio Grande’. Finally we have a live album from 1999 – Live at the Britt Festival. No surprises, but a pleasant career-spanning look back on some lovely tunes. Sadly Michael passed away a few days ago.