The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2

Randy Newman

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The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 Review

by Mark Deming

Nearly eight years after releasing The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1, in which one of America's finest and most distinctive songwriters revisited a handful of songs from his back catalog in elegant, austere new recordings, Newman has delivered the implied follow-up, in which he revisits 16 more tunes with just his own piano work accompanying his vocals. Unlike many veteran artists past official retirement age, Newman's skills as a performer haven't suffered a bit with the passage of time, and these new recordings sound fresh and immediate; while Newman has never had a traditionally "good" voice, his instrument sounds as strong as ever and he's even better at assuming his cast of often questionable characters than he was on his early LPs, while his piano playing, a remarkable fusion of traditional pop and New Orleans groove, is emotionally and technically dazzling and gives these songs all the form and color they need. As good as it is, The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 feels a bit like the second Greatest Hits album drawn from a career artist's catalog; so many great songs were pulled for Vol. 1 that the sophomore effort seems slightly weak in comparison, and though Newman certainly has enough great songs to come up with another Songbook installment as strong as the first, there are a few numbers here that aren't A-list, particularly "Sandman's Coming" from his fascinating but flawed musical Faust and "My Life Is Good," one of the rare examples of his venom not finding its target (it's also one of the only songs here that doesn't seem suited to this minimal arrangement). And while "Laugh And Be Happy" fares well, it also appeared on Newman's last pop effort, 2008's excellent Harps and Angels, and there are plenty of songs that better deserve a second look. The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 seems flawed compared to its sibling, but that's more a matter of the choice of material than any fault in Newman's performance or interpretation; he's the rare performer and songwriter who could undertake this sort of project and not only keep it from seeming redundant, but make it revelatory and consistently pleasurable. Longtime fans will be pleased, and folks who only know Newman from his film scores will be startled at the depth of the man's body of work, even on a collection with a couple of (relative) ringers.

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