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Newman, Vandross Test Positive for Talent

****RANDY NEWMAN. “Land of Dreams.” Reprise.

On his first non-soundtrack album in five years, Randy Newman has returned with a sense of renewal to fashion a glowing tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit, liberally adorned with traces of faith in true love, humanistic social ideals and even a new-found sort of patriotism.

And if you believe that, you’re just the sort of sucker likely to be satirized by Newman, whose new “Land of Dreams” is in fact as nasty, cynical, riotously funny and wracked with deep-felt aches and pains as all its predecessors. Characteristically, its hurt sense of disappointment is masked by bitterness and cynicism, which in turn is masked by a delectably light, satirical touch.

Like Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” this project has the feel of a concept album in which the concept was abandoned by the artist halfway through recording, but Newman has done a better job of salvaging a cohesive album out of the wreckage.

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Side 1 has the more autobiographical material and a sense of the rise and fall of Newman’s own dreams from childhood on; Side 2 has the more comical, topical tunes and deals with America’s own dreams and their ruination via pride and materialism.

“Dixie Flyer” and “New Orleans Wins the War” start the album off with an innocent child’s-eye-view of the South in a very different time, followed by “Four Eyes,” in which little Randy’s being dropped off at school for the first time is hilariously recast as a descent into hell. The next two cuts are suspiciously delirious love songs, with the ominous “Bad News from Home” providing the romantic escape hatch at the end of Side 1.

In true schizoid fashion, the non-narrative second half plunges into a rambling mockery of white attitudes (“Roll with the Punches”) and black attitudes (the devastating rap parody “Masterman and Baby J”), gang values (“Red Bandanna”) and thirtysomething values (the sing-along “It’s Money That Matters”). These loose threads are tied together at the close by the spiteful divorcee who tells his abandoned son--and the whole world--that “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” If that really is Newman’s guiding artistic maxim, we can at least be grateful that it only hurts when we laugh.


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