Harps and Angels

Randy Newman

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Harps and Angels Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Randy Newman always came across as an old crank even when he was an angry young man, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he's flourishing as an old curmudgeon. Flourishing might seem to be an odd word to apply to an artist whose output slowed to a trickle after the release of 1988's Land of Dreams, but 1999's Bad Love found him reconnecting to his core strengths and its 2008 sequel, Harps and Angels, is its equal -- a lean, uncluttered, viciously funny collection of rolling New Orleans shuffles, movie musical moments, and the occasional tender love song. In many ways, Harps and Angels is a continuation of Bad Love, as it has a similar stripped-down production and many of the same lyrical themes, as Newman still is singing about America and aging, just as he was almost a decade earlier. This isn't stasis, this is consistency, as Newman has always relied on his misanthropic wit just as he's always relied on his love for Fats Domino and old Hollywood scores, and this familiar musical bed helps the new wrinkles stand out, whether it's the symphonic stabs that punctuate the near-death experience on the title track or using Jackson Browne as a punch line on "A Piece of the Pie." While its unadorned sound could be seen as a throwback to the early '70s -- especially with rollicking numbers like "Only a Girl" and "Potholes" recalling how 12 Songs could skip lightly -- Harps and Angels is quite explicitly an album of its time, as Newman confronts the age of George W. Bush directly with the merciless "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" and "A Piece of the Pie," where he points out if you're "living in the richest country in the world/Wouldn't you think you'd have a better life?" In this context, Newman's heavy reliance on loping New Orleans rhythms almost seems like a defiant expression of solidarity with the Crescent City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but that's probably reading a little bit too much into it, as these bluesy shuffles are Newman's greatest comfort zone, the place where his slurred singing sounds just right and where his sardonic jokes richly resonate. It's his signature sound and Harps and Angels captures it sublimely, as the production -- a co-credit to Newman's longtime associate Lenny Waronker and his latter-day producer Mitchell Froom -- has no fancy accoutrements and he's written another set of quietly wonderful songs, ranging from the brutal satire of "Korean Parents" to the gentle, lovely "Feels Like Home." These days he may take his time writing songs, but when he delivers two albums as excellent as Bad Love and Harps and Angels back to back, it's hard to call it anything besides flourishing.

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