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Away: The Songs of Randy Newman
Artist: Various Artists
Label; Sugar Hill
Tribute albums are a tricky business. In this day and age, it seems like every artist eventually gets one ( Limp Bizkit has a tribute album!), and most of them are feeble attempts by artists to copy the original's works, or an even lamer attempt to "put their own spin" on a song that stands up much better on its own. Every so often, though, a deserving artist who has somehow slipped through the cracks gets re-discovered. Such is the case with Randy Newman. Sail Away features twelve songs portrayed by a wide variety of artists, and most of them do the venerable Mr. Newman justice.
The title track is performed by Tim O'Brien. He remains faithful to the original, and basically nails it. Sonny Landreth's version of the classic "Louisiana 1927" is a slightly bluesier version, and works quite well. "Birmingham" features Del McCoury, and veers into twangy country ranges that even Newman himself couldn't reach. "Rider on the Rain" (Reckless Kelly/Joe Ely) acquits itself admirably as well.
"Burn On," a Bela Fleck instrumental recorded on the fly in a hotel room (you can hear the air conditioner kick on!), is great, although I miss the vocals here. "Mr. President," done by Sam Bush, is fantastic, and seems almost prophetic. Written in 1974, it seems pretty relevant over thirty years later:
It is cold and the wind is blowingOther portrayals here worth mentioning are Marc Broussard's "You Can Leave Your Hat On," Guster's reworking of "Memo to My Son", and Kim Richey's sublime version of "Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father." The crowning glory to this disc, though, is the Steve Earle version of "Rednecks" – never have a song and its singer been more perfectly married. Earle has just the right amount of venom to carry the sarcasm intended, and it works perfectly.
On the disappointing end is Allison Moorer's "Marie," just an odd pairing of lyric and vocalist – Nickel Creek would have been a better choice here. The nadir, though, is reached in a song that deserves much better treatment. "Political Science" is remade by The Duhks, and the result is almost unlistenable. This is a perfect example of a song that should have been left alone in its arrangement, and sung as written. Glen Phillips would have knocked this one out of the park, and often does it in concert.
Despite those two stumbles, Sail Away is a rare gem – a tribute album that mostly accomplishes its purpose – to honor the artist, and to recall some great, great songs. The irascible Mr. Newman should be pleased.
Brian A. Smith