Review Backlog: Randy Newman

Randy Newman (composer): The Princess and the Frog Original Soundtrack
2009, purchased via iTunes, January 2010

I used to dislike Randy Newman’s music, or at least the music he released under his own name. I hated his voice: slurred, mumbly and capable of communicating only one attitude: sarcasm. I found his choice of subject matters lazy and the endless stream of character-based songs tiresome. I was aware that some or all of these criticisms could be leveled at some of my favorite songwriters (I’m a rabid Richard Thompson fan, and he writes in-character songs that he performs with a severely limited vocal ability), but in Randy Newman’s case, I found the combination particularly grating.

Over time, though, I did learn to appreciate that Randy Newman could put words together like few other songwriters could, and that his melodic and lyrical style and piano arrangements were always instantly recognisable. And I did like his soundtrack for the movie Ragtime when I watched that many years ago. Unsurprisingly, then, I was delighted while watching The Princess and the Frog last Christmas, to recognise Newman’s style from the first few notes of the first song that was played. I would get to hear Newman’s writing for characters that weren’t set up for him to mock, and I would get to hear them performed by singers who aren’t Randy Newman. In my review of the movie, I already mentioned that the songs fit the characters and pace of the movie well. A year later, I can also confirm that they stand up well on their own. My favourite of the songs is “Friends on the Other Side” performed by Keith David and with irresistably menacing, bass backing vocals that are just barely under control. “Down In New Orleans” performed by none other than Dr. John, is another great performance that makes me wonder what Randy Newman’s regular albums would sound like if Dr. John performed them. On the other hand, it took me a while to warm to the instrumentals without the visuals to accompany them. They are perfectly listenable, but on their own, they are incomplete.

One odd track out is “Never Knew I Needed”, which I don’t even remember from viewing the movie, but which must have been played over the end credits. It’s a straightforward R&B track written and performed by Ne-Yo. It’s a good song that managed to break through my resistance against electronics-heavy R&B, but it does not belong in the same musical universe as the rest of the music on this record.