366 Songs 325: New Orleans Wins The War

Viewed from the cynic’s point of view, “New Orleans Wins The War” is everything Randy Newman cliche in one place; listen to that plinky-plonk piano and the ragtime band, after all. But, for me, this is a song that’s all about Newman’s ability to tell stories in song. The lyrics of “New Orleans” are so evocative, whether its in painting the setting of his autobio tale (“Momma used to wheel me past an ice cream wagon/One side for White and one side for Colored,” with its casual racism dating the period and explaining the fucked-up world that was Louisiana – and America – at the time) or the wonderful way that Newman explains his father’s rejection of the New Orleans party and religion dichotomy culture that the family moved from:

Daddy said, “I’m gonna get this boy out of this place
Bound to sap his strength
People have fun here, and I think that they should
But nobody from here every come to no good
They’re gonna pickle him in brandy and tell him he’s saved
Then throw fireworks all ’round his grave”

Add to that, the odd coda that feels somewhat out of place, both in terms of subject and prettiness (“You got someone to love you/Who could ask for more?”), and what you have is a song that’s one of my favorites, despite the numerous ways it just underscores the cliche of Newman’s output.

366 Songs 262: I’m Dreaming

I was thinking about Mitt Romney’s latest, jaw-dropping, gaffe this morning when I found Randy Newman’s contribution to the 2012 political season, and… Well, it fits, somehow. Musically, it’s later-period Newman, definitely (Listen to the way he starts to rip himself off in terms of melody on the piano in the bridge), but lyrically, it’s spot-on in terms of parodying the mindset of voters who’d rather have any President as long as he’s not black: “I’m dreaming of a white President/Just like the ones we’ve always had/A real live white man/Who knows the score/How to handle money or start a war/Wouldn’t even have to tell me what we were fighting for.”

I like it when musicians take advantage of technology to rush-release music as social commentary. More big-name musicians should do this more often, if you ask me.

366 Songs 153: Lonely At The Top

Written, it’s said, for Frank Sinatra – who apparently didn’t get the joke, and turned it down – “Lonely At The Top” remains one of the greatest missed opportunities in music from the last few decades. It’s one thing for the Randy Newman of the 1970s to sing “All the applause/And all the fame/And all the money/That I have made” because, well, at the time he wasn’t getting a lot of any of those, so it can be taken as sarcastic commentary on celebrity, but if it’d been Sinatra singing those words at the time… Well, that’d take things at least one stage more meta, wouldn’t it? How would his audiences have taken the line “Listen, all you fools out there/Go on and love me/I don’t care”?

(Missing in that video is the spectacular arrangement from the original version, which uses the orchestra to create something that’s both very Newman-esque and also, somehow, fit for Sinatra:

…I think, weirdly, it’s the horns that make it feel Sinatra-esque, although I can’t really think of any songs of his where the oompah thing happened often; Nelson Riddle was normally more subtle than that. But that banjo in the background feels wonderfully disrespectful, out of place and comedic, doesn’t it…?)

Of course, the song has been covered many times since its appearance; I think the Divine Comedy version gets the decadent, sad glamor of the idea best, for me:

Robbie Williams has, I’ve been told, performed the song live a couple of times, which seems particularly fitting; he has the fame, the humor and the sadness to “get” what Newman was trying to say in the first place. Maybe, one day, we’ll see a Justin Beiber version when he finally gets around to his big band album…

366 Songs 007: Vine Street

Of all the various versions of “Vine Street” that I’ve heard – and, as a Randy Newman fanboy, I’ve heard a lot – Harry Nilsson’s take, from the Nilsson Sings Newman album that is otherwise surprisingly missable considering the people involved, is by far my favorite. It’s not just that it starts with “Anita,” a really spectacular little pop song that’s not attached to any other version (and something that I wish Newman would expand into a full song at some point), although that’s a massive mark in its favor; instead, it’s the texture and complexity of vocals that Nilsson brings to it, the swooping loveliness that bolsters and emboldens what starts (from the actual beginning of “Vine Street” itself, the “That’s a tape/that we made”) as tired and reticent and ends up as something… what? “Happy,” perhaps, or at least something that’s stronger and more alive when remembering the past than considering the present. Listen to the power in the vocals, the way Nilsson fearlessly throws himself around the melody when he remembers his group “sitting out on the stoop/and we’d play for her/the songs she liked best to have us play” (The showmanship, the showing off, when he gets to that second “play,” it’s so wonderful), and compare that to either the timid “That’s a tape…” earlier or the end of the song, as the harmonies fall away and he’s left alone again, the voice faltering slightly… It’s an incredible performance, a complete story just in its aural quality even ignoring Newman’s lyrics.

Compare this to Newman’s demo – written, I think, for Van Dyke Parks – and, unsurprisingly, the song feels entirely different, in part because Newman at his best could never perform the same kind of vocal acrobatics that Nilsson excelled in, but there’s a tenderness in there that Nilsson is missing because he was so fucking amazing and swinging from word to word when he really got going. The end of the demo, with Newman just vamping a dramatic ending, works for me too – a kind of “fuck you, I’m done” that feels honest and in keeping with the “I’m old and I know it” nature of the rest of the song.

Here’s the version of the song that was, I think, first released, Van Dyke Parks’ version from Song Cycle… It’s filled with what we’ll call his “trademark orchestral touches,” but I can’t help but feel that it’s too orchestrated, and the song itself gets entirely lost in there, distended in prettiness and melodrama until it falls apart:

Give me Harry Nilsson any day. I can believe that that man would sit on a stoop and play, if nothing else. If only he’d played more of that “Anita” song…