Randy Newman spent the better part of a decade working as a contract songwriter before he began making a name for himself as a recording artist, and in 2008 Ace Records released On Vine Street: The Early Songs of Randy Newman, which featured 26 recordings by as many artists of songs from Newman's first ten years as a professional tunesmith. It was an excellent album, a fascinating look into Newman's formative period as well as an unwitting celebration of a great era in pop record making, and thankfully Ace has seen fit to assemble a sequel. Bless You California: More Early Songs of Randy Newman is not quite as good as its predecessor, mostly because a number of the most obvious examples of great Newman interpretations already appeared on Vine Street, but compilers Tony Rounce and Mick Patrick have unearthed some rare and fascinating gems for this second set. Like the first album, Bless You California makes the case that many of the most important elements of Newman's style were firmly in place from the beginning -- his lyrical approach was gentler than on his later solo albums but his characters were already misfits, eccentrics, and losers in love; he was fascinated from the start with the idiosyncrasies of American culture; and his music gracefully fused New Orleans rhythm & blues with the stately approach of classic film music (which, of course, was the family business).
Newman would eventually record six tunes that appear on Bless You California, but the rest exist only in interpretations by other artists, and the variety speaks volumes about the textures of Newman's writing. "Ask If He's Got a Friend for Me" by the Fleetwoods, "What Are You Waiting For" by We Talkies, and "Let Me Go" by the Box Tops reveal Newman's gift for expressing romantic angst, while "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)" by Irma Thomas and "She'll Never Understand Him (Like I Do)" by Connie Stevens put a barely more positive spin on the same themes. "Bless You California" by the Beau Brummels, "Illinois" by the Everly Brothers, and "Twenty Acres of Land" by Johnny Shepard are fine examples of Newman's knack for expressive Americana. And "The Debutante's Ball" by Liza Minnelli and "Happyland" by Harpers Bizarre represent the sort of slice-of-life stories no one else can craft with the same skill. A few interesting oddities are also included -- "Scarlet Mist," a jazzy instrumental piece recorded by Martin Denny, and "I Wonder Why," a rare and successful foray into rock & roll by Ella Fitzgerald -- as well as some songs Newman wrote in collaboration with other composers, most notably "Look at Me," presented here in a grandly swinging recording by its co-author, Bobby Darin. And the lion's share of these tracks come from the golden era of pop record production, with imaginative, inventive arrangements and superb musicianship throughout. Mick Patrick's liner notes provide the background on the songs and recordings, and overall, Bless You California is a remarkably entertaining bit of pop music history and a testimony to the gifts of one of our best and brightest pop songwriters.