Robert Christgau on Randy Newman's Album of the Year Contender

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Newman's latest, 'Dark Matter,' and his occasionally fun, awfully poetic 2016 collection, 'The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3.'

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Aug 4 2017, 4:30pm

Photo via Earl McGehee on Flickr

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

Randy Newman: Dark Matter (Nonesuch) It begins with an eight-minute playlet enacting a Godsplaining rally in the Research Triangle. It follows with five minutes of "Brothers" JFK and RFK launching the Bay of Pigs to save Celia Cruz. Then comes the four-minute "Putin" Newman put on YouTube last October. All informed and funny and painful and complex, all intricately and wittily orchestrated. But well past a dozen engaging passes I still can't guarantee how replayable they'll eventually prove, which I wouldn't say of five of the remaining six tracks, in particular two heart songs: the multivocal, jam-packed, basic-sounding 3:55-minute tour de force "Lost Without You," in which a frightened old man eavesdrops on a conversation between his kids and his dying wife, and the made-for-TV "She Chose Me," which my wife and I certified as a great pop song by feeling it personally and individually even though it's autobiographical for neither of us. Too bad "It's a Jungle Out There," the expanded theme song of Tony Shalhoub's OCD TV sleuth Monk, seems merely sarcastic. But the only way there'll be a better album in 2017 is if some genius comes up with one that unifies the Democratic Party in song from the left, only not... never mind, this is a record review. A

Randy Newman: The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3 (Nonesuch) Yes I enjoyed the first two volumes of this fanbase-stroking specialty item, in which Newman sits down at a piano and reprises some dozen and a half carefully wrought catalogue staples. But without his carefully wrought arrangements, they came up short on use value. Only then I stuck Vol. 3 in my CD slot on a Florida getaway and voila—this was fun, and meant to be. Why else lead with the 39-year-old novelty hit "Short People" and the 45-year-old Three Dog Night hit "Mama Told Me Not to Come"? Why else pair "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" with "Davy the Fat Boy"? True, it's not all yuks—that would be crude. This is indeed where I figured out that 1988's "Red Bandana" was a Bloods-and-Crips fable. It ends with 1988's bleak "Bad News From Home" segueing into 1971's reassuring "I'll Be Home" and then, on the expanded box set version, 1995's heartwarming-by-acclamation "Feels Like Home." But barely fun at all is what follows on the box, 2008's Iraq-steeped "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" and the even grimmer capper, 2012's all too prophetic election-year sick joke "I'm Dreaming": "I'm dreaming of a white president / Someone who we can understand." You think maybe he underwent a mood shift between September of 2016, when the single CD came out, and December of 2016, when the box did? The theory's too neat. But there's an awful poetry to it. A MINUS

Burnt Sugar: All You Zombies Dig the Luminosity (AvantGroidd) Greg Tate's permanent floating black-bohemian-nationalist big band speaks its truths to power and its beauties to the grays ("The Charmer," "Yung Black & Vague," "Black Fros Black Gold") ***

Arto Lindsay: Ciudado Madame (Northern Spy) Bent sambas I expect straighten out quicker for those who understand the Portuguese four of them are written in ("Grain by Grain," "Arto Vs. Arto") ***

Chaim Tannenbaum: Chaim Tannenbaum (Storysound) Brooklyn-born sideman, philosophy prof, and alte kaker waxes tender and unperturbed on the wings of gospel music and his Canadian citizenship ("Farther Along," "Brooklyn 1955") **

James Luther Dickinson: I'm Just Dead, I'm Not Gone: Lazarus Edition (Memphis International) Three years before he'd die at 67 in 2009, the Memphis producer-paterfamilias has lost his voice, as the 1983 coda proves, while retaining the entirety of his brain, spirit, and attitude ("Redneck, Blue Collar," "Lazarus") **

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