Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2006, Volume 13, #5
Written by Tracy M. Rogers
Taking on the back catalog of any artist is a daunting task; attempting to cover the work of an iconoclast like singer-songwriter Randy Newman is damn near impossible. Yet the good folks at Sugar Hill have attempted to do just that. Produced by Steve Fishell, Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman finds seminal alt-country stars — as well as a handful of performers from the blues/R&B world — transforming Newman’s pithily ironic pop into sheer twanging bliss.
Tim O’Brien’s bluegrass-folk take on Sail Away’s title track is beautiful in its fiddle-and-steel guitar simplicity, and his vocals edge their way between a countrified James Taylor and a subdued Bruce Springsteen. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Sonny Landreth’s Louisiana 1927 is particularly timely, and its combination of slide guitar and bluesy, mellow vocals is chilling in its immediacy. Texas rockers Reckless Kelly and guitarist Joe Ely joined forces for a moseying rendition of Rider in the Rain, while Béla Fleck’s contributes a banjo-only instrumental version of Burn On that splits the difference between being a playful southern ditty and a jazzy blues excursion. The true high point of Sail Away, however, is Sam Bush’s dry yet rollicking take on Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man). Fused with Fleck’s instrumental, the song showcases Bush’s sly country vocals over a boogie that is equal parts country-rock, ragtime, and blues.
The final four tracks on Sail Away seem incongruous to the first eight. To be certain, each of these selections is enjoyable in its own right. Guster’s Memo to My Son is an infectious pop-rock tune with banjo and fiddle touches; The Duhks’ Political Science is a ballsy jazz rave-up with social commentary that is still applicable today; Marc Broussard’s soulful, passionate R&B version of You Can Leave Your Hat On is sexy and fun; and imbued with a sense of longing worthy of Lucinda Williams, Kim Richey’s poignant, plaintive piano pop rendition of Texas Girl and the Funeral of Her Father is a real gem. Unfortunately, the stylistic variations of the interpretations detract from the set’s overall cohesiveness.
In spite of this, Sail Away is a fitting tribute to the irreverent yet socially aware songwriter because it stays true to Randy Newman’s sense of fun as well as his willingness to experiment. While Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman is not 2006’s compilation of the year, it is definitely a respectable addition to the growing list of "must have" albums. ½
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box