Recording information: Conway Studios, Los Angeles, CA.
Photographer: Pamela Springsteen.
The third in Randy Newman's series of albums in which he revisits material from his back catalog in stripped-down piano and voice fashion, The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 3 opens with "Short People," his first hit single and a song he's publicly cited as one of his lesser works. While Newman's performance of the song is engaging, it seems an odd choice to kick off the album, and for the most part, Vol. 3 seems less concerned with reassessing little-known gems in Newman's repertoire than in establishing an alternate universe "Greatest Hits" set that collects popular favorites ("I'll Be Home," "Mama Told Me Not to Come," "You've Got a Friend in Me," "I Love to See You Smile") and numbers long embraced by loyal fans ("Love Story," "Burn On," "Rollin'"). For the most part, the performances here are splendid; Newman's piano work remains excellent as he finds the sweet spot between New Orleans stride and Brill Building pop, and one of the biggest pleasures of this series is hearing his keyboard work clear and unencumbered. Newman's voice has never been described as mellifluous, but his vocal performances here are as strong as ever, and his gift for inhabiting his characters is just about flawless. But most of these songs are quite familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Newman's work, and paring them down to their framework doesn't always flatter them. Half of the joke of "I Love L.A." was in the expansive pop arrangement from its original recording on Trouble in Paradise, and the version on Vol. 3 only serves to make that clear, while "Red Bandana" (one of the few songs here that's relatively little-known) similarly sounds hollow in a solo arrangement. That said, there are also a few numbers that truly stand out here; the fatalism of "Love Song" and "Old Man" cuts even deeper in these recordings, and "Bad News from Home" sounds as ominous as a bad dream in its most basic form. Ultimately, The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 3 is the weakest album in the series; the songs are fine, as is Newman's craft as a performer, but too much of this is familiar to anyone who has an appreciation of this great songwriter's work, and these variant performances are strong but add only so much to his legacy. ~ Mark Deming
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