You, me, the music, and me.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

RANDY NEWMAN Little Criminals

Warner Bros. BSK 3079 (1977)

Okay, first of all, let's get that song out of the way. Right, that song.

They got little hands
And little eyes
And they walk around
Tellin' great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet.

Well, I don't want no Short People
Don't want no Short People
Don't want no Short People
`Round here.

"Short People" was the biggest hit of singer-songwriter Randy Newman's career; it went all the way to number two on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart in 1977, and probably would have gone to number one had it not been kept out of the top spot by Debby Boone's treacly "You Light Up My Life". Along with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and the Beatles' "Revolution", it's one of the most misunderstood pop songs ever. Newman invented and wrote about a prejudice that didn't exist (or at least was not very prevalent in society) so he could examine the nature and principles of bigotry and racism without focusing on any one group in particular. What happened, of course, was that many people took the song at face value and interpreted it as an attack on short people. It's a good thing he didn't write a song called "Stupid People". Ahem...

Little Criminals was Newman's sixth album, coming just after his critically praised run of records like 12 Songs, Sail Away, and Good Old Boys, and just before his first film soundtracks (Ragtime, The Natural, and Three Amigos). The album was not received quite so well by critics as his previous works, and some of the tunes do feel more like fragments of songs than actual songs. Most stick with you after repeated listenings, though; "You Can't Fool the Fat Man" is a funny trifle with a catchy New Orleans-style middle eight, and the touching "I'll Be Home" looks ahead to some of Newman's movie ballads* for Toy Story and the like. The best songs are the ones that dig deepest; "Baltimore" is a moving, rhythmically-driving elegy to the crime-ridden city, and "Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easier)" is an oddly ominous love song. Best of all is the title track, a pounding rock number with a madly swerving hook about a gang of stick-up artists chiding the drug-addicted thieves they see as beneath them in stature.

What you wanna come back here for?
Thought you're with your uptown friends
Don't need none of your junkie business
You gonna screw us up again

'Cause we've almost made it
We've almost made it
We've almost made it to the top

The funniest song may be "Rider in the Rain", a lazily loping send-up of the Eagles' "Desperado", on which Newman actually gets Eagles frontmen Don Henley and Glenn Frey to sing backup harmonies!

Oh, my mother's in St. Louis
And my bride's in Tennessee

So, I'm goin' to Arizona

With a banjo on my knee

He's a Rider In The Rain

He's a Rider In The Rain

And I'm goin' to Arizona

He's a Rider In The Rain

It's unclear whether Frey and Henley are in on the joke, but you know that Newman is.

Newman sticks mostly to film scores these days, which is too bad; the radio could use a little more of his good-natured cynicism. There's a whole generation who knows him simply as "the Toy Story guy", which is pretty hilarious to anyone familiar with the darkly comic songs found on his earlier albums. Of course, any kind of Randy Newman is better to have around than none at all.

*(side note - I was pretty happy to see Newman take home an Oscar for one of those Pixar movie buddy songs he wrote (it was the one that John Goodman sang at the ceremony), especially since he had been nominated something like fifteen times without a win, though I do think it's funny to imagine that it probably takes him less time to write one of those tunes than it does to actually sing it. Nothing against him or his talent; in fact, it's that tossed-off feel that gives those songs their charm, and Newman is so good that he can probably whip one off without breaking a sweat... "Yeah, hello? Oh, hi, David. Yeah, good. A song? Sure, whaddaya got? Okay... two best pals... against the odds... giant cat... talking cars... okay, got it. I'll call you back in five minutes. (click) Honey? Good news! We can keep the cottage for another year!")


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