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Harps and Angels
Artist:  Randy Newman
Label:  Nonesuch
Its not easy being Randy Newman.  You spend years as a singer-songwriter only to find you've ended up being banned in Boston and having an army of Short People on your tail.  You have classic albums like Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but does the public remember?  No.   Then, you disappear into the world of movie soundtracks and songs that appear at the end of movies like Toy Story.   So you have two uncles who are legendary in the movie soundtrack business, Lionel and Alfred, respectively.  For 25 years you write beautifully glorious soundtracks to movies like Ragtime and The Natural.  But does the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences award you the coveted Oscar?  No.  After 14 or 15 nominations, you finally get the measly naked bald headed statue for one of those songs that comes in during the credits at the end of some kid's movie.  So why you should return to your roots, the singer songwriter alone on his piano with a ragtime orchestra behind you?   Because, you're Randy Newman and I'm not!  
With another 'long awaited' collection of new songs, Newman just continues the everlasting dialogue between him and his audience covering diverse topics like religion, patriotism, prosperity(or the lack thereof), and enough satiric subtext and irony to allow us to know some things like peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, baseball and Randy Newman just don't change.  If you're curious to hear this new CD, I'd recommend a primer with Randy Newman Live and Sail Away.   As you listen you must think commentary, political cartoons, comic strip haiku and George Gershwin turned from a prince to a frog.  Or maybe George M Cohen on some illegal substance.  Harps and Angels fills these expectations, so if you're prone to listen to every lyric, be prepared for a unique ride.  
Newman has always enjoyed writing about religion from a good-humored agnostic perspective.  He' not looking for answers, just questions and observations.He even delivers a song from the Creator on Sail Away.     So, its only fitting the aptly titled Harps and Angels opens with the title song concerning the narrator's encounter with death where he sees, you guessed it, Harps and Angels.   He describes hearing an "Old Testament voice' and a 'voice full of love from the New One," telling him that he was there only because of a clerical error.  The conclusion of the song is to repent because if you don't live a good life; rather than Harps and Angels, there'll be trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks and tambourines coming for you."    The message is declared in the last line, "There really is an afterlife/I hope to see you there/Let's go get a drink."  It seems Newman is taking a kinder look at his cosmic vision of the afterlife.  Even making the reference of the voice full of love from the New Testament shows a tiny step toward maybe, let's say, a reduction in the cynicism department. But, Newman's religous satire has become expected.  He is the founder of it for the 60's generation.  Today, he could be accurately considered a benerovant and more intelligent Bill Mahr.      
Other songs deal with the political in the post-9/11 Bush era  "A Few Words In Defense of Our Country," deals with a would-be decline of America's influence in the world.  In this he laments, "The end of an empire is messy."   "A Piece of the Pie," looks at human greed and the modern era.  He doesn't leave himself out in the line, "the rich are getting richer/ I should know."  And in the end, the theological, personal, cultural, political and patriotic questions, doubts and fears are resolved in the final song, "Feels Like Home."   A cloaked love song to the U.S.A ,it is summed up in the lines, "Feels like home to me/feels like I'm all the way back where I belong."    
This is Randy Newman at his finest.  He's writing without boundaries, as usual.  He takes us on tour through the life and times of the pop culture of the turn of the century and we emerge, if a little dizzy, better people for it.  The CD should come with a  warning...."Like sushi, Randy Newman is not for everybody."   But if you choose to ride along with him, you'll hear the ragtime influence, the Dixieland Jazz soul in in the instrumentation, which can, at a moments notice turn into angry discordant mayhem, while he cries that  no one cares but Jackson Browne.   The orchestration, written and conducted by the twisted bard himself, is uniformly excellent.  
Harps and Angels gives us back Randy Newman, ragged lonely observer of the absurd from 30 years ago.  It easily stands as an equal to Sail Away and Good Old Boys.  Let me say this, but don't tell him I said so because it might go to his head; Randy Newman is a true American treasure.  After all, we want the man to continue working hard!  He may be the hardest working man in show business today.   He certainly is among the funniest and most insightful.   

Terry Roland

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