Early, quirky Randy Newman is back in 'Bad Love'

CD REVIEWS

June 10, 1999|By J.D. CONSIDINE | J.D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Randy Newman

Bad Love (Dreamworks 50115)

Given the curmudgeonly reputation he's earned through such songs as "It's Money That Matters" and "Short People," there's something almost comic about Randy Newman calling his album "Bad Love." Come on, now -- what other kind of love is the guy going to be writing about?

But in a way, the title serves as a sort of warning to those who only know Newman for what he's done lately -- joshing, jovial soundtracks like those to "Toy Story" and "Antz." It has been 22 years since he shocked polite and diminutive listeners alike by insisting that short people "got no reason to live"; indeed, Newman hasn't released a regular pop album since 1988's characteristically dystopian "Land of Dreams."

"Bad Love," however, makes it seem as if he's never been gone. All the expected elements are there -- sarcastic swipes at sentimentality ("My Country"), rapier-sharp social satire ("The World Isn't Fair") and oddly endearing portraits of cranks and bigots ("I Want Everyone To Like Me") -- and the sound attained by producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake harks back to the quirky greatness of Newman's early work.

And yet, there's something vaguely dissatisfying about this new collection. It isn't that Newman has lost his touch so much as that "Bad Love" tries so hard to sound like his old albums that it ends up overlooking the strengths of the new Newman.

Sure, it's fun to hear Newman get into character in "Shame." Assuming the voice of a cranky sugar daddy trying to coax some little honey back into his arms, Newman offers a masterful portrayal of the old man's oily charm and barely suppressed rage with his drawling, deadpan delivery.

But despite some wickedly funny lines, there's something sadly obvious about the targets he zings in "The Great Nations of Europe," which mocks how Europeans civilized the world through indiscriminate slaughter, and "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," about a rock star who doesn't know when to retire. It's like getting B+ work from an A student -- disappointing, but hardly a failure.

If only the album had more songs like "I Miss You." Blessed with a melody as slow and stately as his most evocative movie scores, it finds Newman -- who admits he'd sell his soul for a song -- finally writing one for his long-departed ex-wife. It's a wonderfully heartfelt moment and one that reminds us that for all his wiseacre hits, Newman's best songs have always been heartbroken ballads like "Guilty" or "I Think It's Going To Rain Today." Here's hoping he writes us a few more. ***

Pop/rock

Texas

The Hush (Universal 32612)

It isn't the voice that matters so much as what you do with it -- a point Texas drives home on "The Hush." On a technical level, Sharleen Spiten isn't a remarkable vocalist, offering little more than a dark and pleasantly breathy tone. Fortunately, her strengths perfectly suit the songs she and bandmate Johnny McElhone have written, coaxing a shy charm from the chinoiserie of "In Our Lifetime" and bringing a sultry lassitude to "Sunday Afternoon." She even manages to evoke the lissome sweetness of vintage Diana Ross on the Motown-ish "When We Are Together." But where this Scots quartet shines brightest is in its ability to balance contemporary grooves with retro-rock arrangements, bringing lithe, soulful grace to "Move In" and infusing "Summer Son" with an ABBA-esque melancholy. ***

Boom Boom Satellites

Out Loud (Epic 69911)

It isn't easy to define the sort of music Boom Boom Satellites make. Surf through "Out Loud" and you'll hear all sorts of sounds, from fevered DJ scratching to jazzy trumpet solos, and from airy, ambient vocal harmonies to paint-peeling guitar distortion. Yet as varied as the sound gets, there's never any sense of stylistic confusion in the music. Instead, what the Satellites -- guitarist Michiyuki Kawashima and programmer Masayuki Nakano -- present are the musical equivalent of huge, richly textured collages. So even though tracks like "Missing Note" or "On the Painted Desert" are awash in sonic detail, the listener is never in danger of drowning in sound. Instead, the chattering keyboards, eddying breakbeats, and jazzy horn solos that swirl though tracks like "Intruder" seem as invigorating as the jets in a Jacuzzi. ***1/2

Various Artists

Y2K: Beat the Clock (Columbia 42185)

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