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Sound Bites: Audio Reviews

November 24, 1998

``Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman″ (Rhino) _ Randy Newman

The biggest problem with Randy Newman’s music is there’s too little of it. He’s the funniest man in rock ‘n’ roll, an American original beyond imitation, but it’s hard to make the case for Newman as a giant of his generation because he has produced only 10 albums in 30 years.

That makes any release by the singer/songwriter/pianist big news, and ``Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman″ is a bountiful four-CD compilation that includes 105 tracks. The set underscores the range of Newman’s work _ a unique blend of Stephen Foster, Hoagy Carmichael and Mark Twain, meshing the sounds of New Orleans, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley with lyrics that are by turns subtle, cynical, tender and topical.

He writes often in character, a tongue-in-cheek technique that can confuse casual listeners and turn Newman into a controversial figure on such songs as ``Short People.″ He sings suburban blues with sardonic humor with a permanent frog in his throat, impervious to the demands of the marketplace. Or as Newman puts it in one song: ``Who needs money when you’re funny?″

The first two discs from ``Guilty″ feature the best of Newman’s studio recordings and are primarily for the uninitiated. The development of his style is fully represented. And while any Newman collection is destined to leave out important music, the biggest hits are here _ ``Short People″ and ``I Love L.A.″ _ along with songs that became hits for other artists, like ``Mama Told Me Not to Come″ and ``I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.″

For Newman fans, the set is essential because of Disc 3, which includes demos, rarities and previously unreleased studio cuts. One highlight is ``Happy,″ a crude, hilarious, 38-second demo about a morning glory. Disc 4 is also valuable because it provides an overview of Newman’s marvelous film compositions from such movies as ``Ragtime,″ ``The Natural″ and ``Toy Story.″

The holiday season brings a glut of new releases, but none will be better than this.

_ By Steven Wine, Associated Press Writer.

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``Takin’ Chances″ (Cannonball Records) _ James Harman

There are some basic themes to the blues, such as love, hard times and no money. But it isn’t often you find a blues theme record.

Leave it to James Harman.

After 1995′s ``Black and White,″ Harman stayed out of the studio for three years but didn’t quit writing. In reviewing his production for his first recording on his new label, he found an album’s worth of tunes that look at life’s gambles.

Government-run lotteries (``Modern Numbers Game″), playing the ponies (``Five’ll Getcha Ten″) and, yes, the uncertainties of love (``Crapshoot″), all get the naked-truth treatment from a master storyteller. A horse tipster ``didn’t scare me, though he reeked of mortal sin.″ Love’s a ``crapshoot″ so ``you can buy a Maytag, baby, if you want guarantees.″ To an irresistible lover he laments, ``I’d like to line up with the living, forget about being your special friend.″

His vignettes are all set against some of the finest swing and blues on the scene. The mainstream swing bands falling all over themselves to get Top 40 play could take lessons from a guy who’s been on the 250-joints-a-year bus tour for nearly 40 years.

Harman has assembled some of his longtime recording buddies for ``Takin’ Chances,″ including Kid Ramos and Robby Eason on guitars, Jeff Tumes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums. Harman’s harmonica is as steady as ever, though he uses it to accent more than lead. The production work by co-conspirator Jerry Hall puts you right in the middle of the recording session, as usual.

_ By James Reindl, Associated Press Writer.

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``Spirit Trail″ (RCA Records) _ Bruce Hornsby

Critics and liner note authors like to write about Bruce Hornsby as if each recording he makes is some huge musical evolution from the preceding one. Bluegrass influences here, jazz there, funk today, soul tomorrow. In truth, Hornsby has worked in an amalgam of styles throughout his Grammy-winning career. He embraces many, typifies none but his own.

``Spirit Trail″ is his sixth recording, an ambitious double compact disc. In some respects it is a greatest hits of Hornsby style. It reaches back to the lyrical piano playing of his earliest recordings in the mid-1980s and reprises the jazz of his latest work. In the middle, the funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll that have always been there.

It’s a storyteller’s recording from a guy who knows how to tell one. He happens to be able to put his stories to great music, but in the end, it’s the stories that count. Hornsby sums it up on the disc’s second cut, ``Resting Place″: ``You ever feel like a street walker/I get by being a funny talker. All those funny jokes sting/so keep walkin’.″

_ By James Reindl, Associated Press Writer.

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``Devil in a Woodpile″ (Bloodshot Records) _ Devil in a Woodpile

Anything with a devil on the cover and in its name that mysteriously shows up at your desk probably should not be ignored. So it needs to be noted that four guys who live in Chicago but sound like they’re down in a Tennessee hollow have put out a down-home toe-tapper for their debut compact disc. Call it country blues, rag or whatever, but when that washboard gets to humming and that tuba gets to oomphing, it’s hard to keep your shoes on, no matter where you live.

_ By James Reindl, Associated Press Writer.

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