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Sail Away
The Songs of Randy Newman

Review By Steven Stone
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  Few performers have a musical style as unique or idiosyncratic as Randy Newman. Given the theatrical and highly ironic nature of Newman's delivery, the idea of trying to cover his songs seems more like a walk through a musical minefield than a celebration of song. But The Songs of Randy Newman makes a strong argument for Randy Newman as a songwriter, as opposed to a performer.

Producer Steve Fishell was given the daunting job of coming up with enough brave recording artists to tackle Newman's catalog. Sugar Hill performers Sonny Landreth, Steve Earle, Reckless Kelly, Sam Bush, Allison Moorer, and The Duhks joined Del McCoury, Tim O'Brien, Marc Broussard, Jerry Douglas, Kim Richey, Bela Fleck, and Guster for the task. Some recordings, such as Bela Fleck's, chose to do intimate instrumental version of Newman's songs. Others, such as Steve Earle's, tried to do full-on production number rivaling Newman's own carefully orchestrated versions. But whether big or small, all the renditions on the anthology share an individualistic view of Newman's work.

The opening cut, Tim O'Brien's interpretation of "Sail Away," sets the tone for the anthology. His version emphasizes the melody and delivers the lyrics with minimal irony, letting the listener connect the dots. Given the devastation of last year's hurricane season, Louisiana native Sonny Landreth's treatment of "Louisiana" needs little additional irony or pathos. Once more the music's beauty, rather than the lyrics, comes to the forefront. The most over-the-top selection on the anthology comes, not surprisingly, from Steve Earle. His cover of "Rednecks" features heavy vocal processing and a heavy southern twang that puts even Newman's original patois to shame. Given Earle's white trash background it's hard to tell exactly where he stands as he sings "We're rednecks, rednecks, and we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground..." In terms of sheer beauty Bela Fleck's solo banjo cover of "Burn On" takes my top honors. It was recorded in room 917 of the Sheraton Hotel in Sacramento, CA, and edited and mixed on his bus while on tour. Who knew this tune could sound so darn moving? Kim Richey's version of "Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father" comes in a close second, due in no small part to Billy Mowbray's sensitive arrangement, programming, and production work.

The sound on Sail Away-The Songs of Randy Newman varies from above average to "Oh my God, I just heard an angel." With every song from a different studio and producer, mastering engineer Jim Demain from Yes Master had his hands full leveling the playing field so everyone's selections worked well together. The best sound comes from the simplest recording Bela Fleck's hotel session. I suspect that Steve Earle's "Rednecks" posed the biggest sonic challenge. It's not supposed to sound beautiful, but if it sounded genuinely bad listeners would push the "next selection" button on their CD players. As is Earle's vocals have been electronically pushed and prodded into a caricature of crackerdom while the instruments have the ruckus sizzle of raw pork at a pig roast. It works, but don't expect it to sound sweet. At high volumes you may suspect that something in your stereo just broke. Fortunately the Bela Fleck cut follows, so you'll hear that your system is still OK.

Combine all the exceptional music with super stylish CD graphics and an insightful essay by David Wild, and you have a package worthy of its subject. Sail Away - The Songs of Randy Newman ranks up with 1998's Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and 2002's Going Driftless: An Artist's Tribute to Greg Brown as one of those "must have" anthologies. Buy a copy before some Texas or Iranian fool really does drop the big one.




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