Randy Newman
Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman

Has there ever been an artist as politically incorrect as Randy Newman? Has there ever been a songwriter who risked so much of his reputation by singing in the voice of the unreliable narrator? Ever since 1968, when Reprise records issued Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun, Newman has expanded the role of the confessional singer-songwriter. Whether he's spitting out his best Fats Domino licks at the piano or camouflaging brutal feelings with layers of sentimental Hollywood strings, Newman finds a way to give voice to the weirdos who inhabit his head. Insincere lovers whisper cliches, callous children threaten their parents, racists champion their right to speak the truth. It's all part of Randy's world.

Given that he's only recorded nine albums of studio material in the past thirty years, however, a four-disc retrospective may seem a tad overgenerous. And sure enough, the first two discs of Guilty collect most of the highlights. The third disc consists of the requisite studio outtakes, demos, and live tracks; the fourth spotlights Newman's foray into movie soundtracks.

Despite his claims to the contrary in his amusingly droll liner notes, Newman's best works are not the soundtracks he prizes, but, rather, the brilliant story-songs from which his reputation was built. The scathing atheist anthem, "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," the ironic bombast of "Rednecks," and the clever mean-streak of "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do" all make the case for Newman as a champion satirist. This box set also rescues Newman's early single, "Golden Gridiron Boy," the blazing "Gone Dead Train," and a series of early demos ("Vine Street," "Don't Ruin Our Happy Home") that are rare and essential to the Newman fanatic.

It's the best one can hope for, until someone bribes Newman with enough cash to get him to write his autobiography.

-- Rob O'Connor

Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo
Strange But True

With song titles and lyrics culled from the headlines of the Weekly World News, this collaboration between an iconoclastic, innocent noise monger and an indie world critic's darling is a disappointing mixed bag of noise and delicacy, deadpan lyrics, and impromptu music. Recorded in just two days (one each in 1994 and 1996), Strange only occasionally demonstrates the airy, Velvet Underground-type sonic droning that Hoboken, New Jersey's Yo La Tengo has perfected throughout their fourteen-year career.

The record is centered on Half Japanese leader Jad Fair's straightforward reading of his brother David's lyric non sequiturs: monkeys that bowl a perfect game; three-year-old high school valedictorians; and a piano with an extra 21 keys. Unfortunately the spontaneous nature of the collaboration and the fact that most of the 22 songs clock in under two minutes keep it from gelling into something that sounds like a fully formed record. Instead, Strange sounds like talented people goofing off.

When Fair is given a solid musical backdrop to play off (without the distracting noise of Half Japanese or the simpleness of his solo work), the bizarre stories are entertaining novelty sketches, but they never quite make it as developed songs. The ideas don't appear to be fleshed out; Fair's mostly spoken vocals are suited to the song topics, but they often seem dropped on top of the music as an afterthought. They are subpar for an adventurous band like Yo La Tengo, in part because they were basically unrehearsed jams and first takes. Once the humor of the stories wears off, there's little left to enjoy.

The rare highlights come when Yo La Tengo take center stage and Fair is reined in a bit. The jazzy, acoustic guitar and brushed drums of "Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese," combined with Fair's clipped cadence, give the song a beatnik feel, a cohesiveness that's lacking elsewhere. "National Sports Association Hires Retired English Professor to Name New Wrestling Holds" has lazy beats and tremoloed guitar licks as good as Yo La's grooviest work. The rhythm section of bass player James McNew and drummer Georgia Hubley forms a solid base of simplicity on this slow burner and guitarist Ira Kaplan bounces off them, weaving and wagging his strings. "Car Gears Stuck in Reverse, Daring Driver Crosses Town Backwards" is compact and stuttering; McNew plays a high melody over tambourine accentuated drums, with Kaplan's guitar repeating the same chord for the entirety of the song. More tunes like these -- that is, finished tunes -- would have been welcome.

-- David Simutis

Buffalo Tom

Buffalo Tom members Bill Janovitz (guitar/vocals), Chris Colbourn (bass/vocals), and Tom Maginnis (drums) cut their teeth in the late-Eighties Boston scene where bands such as The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Throwing Muses, and Sebadoh first flourished. The trio embraced the same paradoxes as their peers, matching understated lyrics with sonic majesty, and an intense spirit with a detached persona.

The band's 1991 hit "Taillights Fade," from the album Let Me Come Over, introduced Buffalo Tom to a national audience. As the band began to carve out a recording career for themselves, their sound became more diverse, opening a dark crevice between the complicated humanity of the Dylan/Springsteen tradition and the slacker rock of their East Coast youth. These conflicting influences yielded both the pristine pop of 1993's Big Red Letter Day and the straightforward rock of 1995's Sleepy-Eyed.

The band's sixth and latest record, Smitten, finds them finally at a crossroads. Even as they bring new musical elements and arrangements into the three-piece scenario, they still seem to be searching for the next evolutionary step. The band co-produced the record with Dave Bianco (Teenage Fan Club) and supplemented their guitar-dominated approach to songwriting with more material composed on piano and organ. Much of the new stuff is compelling, but as their sound is wrecked and remodeled; half of the songs struggle to be heard over the construction noise.

Clumsy phrasing and pedestrian chord changes render "Rachael" and "The Bible" unremarkable, and the chilly, gritty "Postcard" and "Register Side" sound more tired than rueful. Janovitz can be a very expressive singer, or one that draws the lyrics out methodically, like they're the last bit of toothpaste in the tube. In "Knot in It" and "Scottish Windows," the latter applies, as his raspy meandering wears thin and the songs slowly wither before they catch fire. "White Paint Morning" and "Do You In" turn up the thermostat, as prowling organ, brash vocals, and tight guitar and drum interplay focuses the band's energy. "Walking Wounded" is another scorcher, built on descending chords, thrash drumming, and the time-honed contrast between Janovitz's husky howl and Colbourn's earnest clamor.

Other keepers here include "See to Me" and "Wiser," two crisp, gorgeous slices of pop that display the range and substance of the band's sound. But most worthy of all is the beautiful "Under Milkwood," a country-tinged ballad full of softly brushed cymbals, acoustic guitar, and showering piano lines as ominous and sublime as the rainy-night imagery of the lyrics.

After more than a decade together, Buffalo Tom should be praised for exploring new avenues instead of riding three-chords into oblivion. Even if the progress demonstrated on Smitten is half-hearted, the six great songs here raise hope for a more consequential result the next time around.

-- Robin Myrick


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