Following on from the success of “On Vine Street”, Ace’s first collection of compositions by Randy Newman, comes “Bless You California”. As with the previous volume, the focus is primarily on Newman’s early work for Metric Music, and once again there’s a diverse array of classics, near-misses and obscurities on offer here. Listening to the emerging talent of one of the world’s most gifted songwriters makes for a fascinating 67 minutes.
It was during his tenure at Metric in the 1960s that Randy honed his writing skills. There’s clearly a brain ticking away here. Randy was still finding his songwriting niche and testing the musical waters by trying his hand at a wide range of genres. From soul ballads (Irma Thomas’ reading of ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is’) to widescreen Americana (‘Illinois’ from the Everly Brothers’ outstanding “Roots” LP), to the charming pre-rock innocence of the Fleetwoods (‘Ask Him If He’s Got A Friend For Me’), to the character sketches for which he would later achieve fame and notoriety (Duffy Power’s ‘(Davy O’Brien) Leave That Baby Alone’), you could never say Newman was stuck in a rut. There’s even a cocktail jazz instrumental in Martin Denny’s ‘Scarlet Mist’ – a new one to me, and a recording which maybe explains Randy’s brief spell writing for the TV Music Library at 20th Century Fox (or maybe it was the influence of his soundtrack-composing uncle Alfred, who penned the immortal Fox fanfare ident).
In spite of this almost scattershot approach (“well, that didn’t work, let’s try this”), from the evidence here it’s possible to trace the emergence of one of the most idiosyncratic singer-songwriters of the 1970s. While the style-hopping may imply a certain lack of self-confidence, once Randy had found his lyrical voice (apparently with ‘Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear’, included on “On Vine Street”), he was off and running. The sardonic pops at society wrapped up in ‘The Debutante’s Ball’ (performed here by Liza Minnelli) and ‘Bless You California’ (the Beau Brummels) present a world-view unlike any other songwriter from the era. Still, even at this stage in his career he could turn his hand to a ballad as impossibly tender as ‘Snow’, perfectly suited to the none-more-fragile voice of Claudine Longet.
Other highlights include Alan Price’s delightful and chortlesome near-throwaway ‘Tickle Me’ and Harry Nilsson’s breathtaking performance of ‘Cowboy’, culled from his “Nilsson Sings Newman” album and featuring one of the most resigned, world-weary vocals ever committed to tape. From the ridiculous to the sublime and all points between; this terrific collection is not just for Newman scholars, but stands as a perfect introduction to a unique talent. Any chance of a third volume?
By Harvey Williams