Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Classic From the Racks: I've been trying to pull out a piece of old vinyl every week lately. It's not easy -- the turntable is tucked away from curious three-year-old hands -- but it keeps me from getting too musically stagnant. Some oddball selections have made appearances lately, from Willie Nelson's Stardust (outlaw country icon does jazz-vocal standards?!) to Willis Alan Ramsey (minor meteor of 70s country-folk). But this week a classic came out: Randy Newman's Sail Away. There's a reason why advertisers for years used Newman sound-alikes for their jingles. His voice and delivery are earnestly upbeat, which probably explains why his irony, bordering on sarcasm, can slip under the radar. The title track, delivered as piano and voice over syrupy strings, might be a perfect Madison Avenue product itself but for what it is selling -- slavery.
In America you'll get food to eat
Won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet
You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It's great to be an American
You can see, looking closely at the words, instead of buying the song whole, why controversy might follow. But Newman can be subtle, too. His song "Dayton, Ohio - 1903" is a gentle portrait of simpler, slower times; the irony is not in what is said, as in "Sail Away," but in what is unsaid: the two people missing from that portrait of Dayton are its most famous sons, Wilbur and Orrville Wright, who in 1903 were about to put an end to the world Newman describes. It's not cutting or particularly bitter, despite the unspoken lament of its narrator.

Beyond the songs themselves, the musicianship is excellent. Ry Cooder's twang is in full force on songs like "Last Night I had a Dream"; and Newman's facility with arrangements is obvious, from the subversive salesmanship of "Sail Away" to the rising horns that usher in the climactic "Burn On":

Cleveland, city of light, city of magic
Cleveland, city of light, you're calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
'Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin' through my dreams
The dated topicality of "Burn On" is exceptional to the album. Nothing else strikes the listener as horribly out of place. Even the ironic A-bomb-romancing of "Political Science" transcends its 1970s, no-nukes pedigree:
No one likes us, I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around, even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens
You might even -- if you strain -- detect the tiniest kernel of misanthropic literalism in those lines.

If you don't have the taste for vinyl (and Sail Away can be found in that format for $2 in every used record store), the remastered disc is available. But I like the sound of Newman on vinyl, with all the scratches and skips and imperfections. It's more like the world he describes.

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