Live in London
Through most of his first decade as a recording artist, Randy Newman was a critics' darling known to the mainstream pop audience only through the songs he wrote that were recorded by artists such as Dusty Springfield, Three Dog Night, and Harry Nilsson, his own records often being too lyrically blunt (and his vocals too froggy) for radio. Newman finally scored a hit of his own with "Short People" in 1978, but his greatest success came in the 1990s; his profitable sideline in writing film scores eventually grew into his primary occupation, and the theme songs he wrote for movies like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars, and The Princess and the Frog earned him a reputation for composing warm but clever pop tunes that overshadowed his more personal work in the public eye. In recent years, Newman appears to have gone on a low-key campaign to remind folks about the music he made before hitting pay dirt with Pixar and Disney; he's recorded two volumes of The Randy Newman Songbook in which he revisits gems from his back catalog with only his piano accompanying his vocals, and now he's released Live in London, which documents a show from a 2008 British tour in support of the album Harps and Angels. The 22-song set list spans the whole of Newman's recording career, including one tune from his 1968 debut LP ("Love Story") as well as several selections from Harps and Angels, and while Newman performs eight numbers solo at the piano, on the rest he's accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, offering a generous reminder that Newman's skill as an arranger is on a par with his gift as a composer. Newman has never possessed a traditionally "great" voice, and his instrument wavers a bit on several of these selections, but his sense of phrasing and his ability to inhabit a character is still impressive, and his piano work, perhaps the only thing Fats Domino and Aaron Copland will ever have in common, is excellent. The tone of Live in London is relaxed but confident, and Newman's between-song patter offers a witty look into the wealth of ideas and influences that inform his songwriting, from America's stature in the eyes of the world to his son's report cards. Live in London doesn't quite catch Randy Newman at his best as a performer, but he clearly knows how to make his great songs connect with an audience, and as an overview of his career as one of America's best and most intelligent songwriters, it's well worth investigating for longtime fans as well as those who know little of him beyond "You've Got a Friend in Me."