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Randy Newman reflected on his legacy and new album at an intimate L.A. gig

Randy Newman, photographed at his home in Pacific Palisades, held court for a small audience of music industry guests Thursday in West Los Angeles (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Randy Newman, photographed at his home in Pacific Palisades, held court for a small audience of music industry guests Thursday in West Los Angeles (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

What did Randy Newman glean from rerecording his songs for a recent series of “Randy Newman Songbook” albums, in which he delivered his material solo with just his own accompaniment?

“One thing that struck me was the consistency,” Newman, 73, told an intimate invitation-only gathering Thursday night at the Village recording studio in West Los Angeles.

Many pop musicians, he noted as an ardent student of pop music history, deliver their best work in their 20s and 30s, and often struggle through the rest of their lives to match those youthful creative peaks.

“At least I haven’t gotten appreciably worse,” the Grammy- and Academy Award-winning film composer and songwriter said drolly, eliciting laughter from a couple dozen onlookers. “I think my stuff sounds like it’s from the same person. The things I was writing 50 years ago sound like the same person who’s writing today.”

Newman won his second Academy Award in 2011 for best original song. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Newman won his second Academy Award in 2011 for best original song. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Newman offered a few samples from his widely lauded “Dark Matter” album, which was released Aug. 4, which The Times' Mikael Wood described as “a masterful collection so rich with sonic detail that you almost hope he never gets around to making ‘The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 4.’ ”

Newman opened with the album’s grandly ambitious first track, “The Great Debate,” which runs more than eight minutes, and which Newman said his label, Nonesuch, was reluctant to sequence as the new collection’s opening salvo.

“Where else are you going to put it?” he asked. “It’s like trying to hide an elephant.” 

Besides, he said, “What have I got to lose? It’s not like I’m the Eagles.” 

He also served up a good chunk of the much-discussed song “Putin,” which he again marveled at by saying, “Of course, he’s a terrible person, but it’s really not that critical of him.”

More laughs erupted when he reached the line referencing a widely publicized photo of Russia’s president going shirtless. “When he takes his shirt off/ He drives the ladies crazy/ When he takes his shirt off/ Makes me wanna be a lady.”

He also dipped back to reprise his 2008 song “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” a politically barbed number written with the George W. Bush administration in mind, which he said, “I never expected to be playing again. I thought that was the worst things would ever get.”

Taking a request from the Q&A sessions’s MC — KCRW host and music supervisor Gary Calamar — Newman concluded with “Louisiana 1927,” his song about flooding across that state in the early 20th century. It has become something of an anthem in Louisiana and has been recorded by artists including Aaron Neville, Marcia Ball, Jo-El Sonnier, Bill Wyman and John Boutte.

Newman is launching a late summer-fall tour on Aug. 24, in Jackson, Wyo., and will crisscross the U.S. through November. It will resume with a European leg starting Feb. 16 in Berlin, with additional stops in Scotland, England and Ireland. No L.A. dates have been set.

Here’s “The Great Debate,” which opens Newman’s new album.

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