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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Newman--Serious Note in His Irony

Look up ironic in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of Randy Newman. Such is the quintessence of this singer-songwriter’s picture-perfect brand of pungent wit that so waggishly defines the word.

All right, so there’s no such picture of Newman there. But where could Webster find a more illustrative model?

Ponder the fact that Newman’s chant-along anthem, “I Love L.A.,” has seemingly become as integral a part of our culture as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” recitable at will by most any local between 16 and 42, and the thing about it is there’s not a sincere line in the song.

Given his penchant for springing out of his verses with unsettling punch lines like a brilliantly perverse jack-in-the-box, Newman is the ideal choice for an April Fools’ Day night out. An infrequent performer who tours sans band, he played one in a series of Southern California solo shows at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday.

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As the Randy One himself is prone to point out, even his more serious compositions ( especially the serious ones, it would seem) almost always have at least one or two key lines that act as an “escape clause,” which adds an extra--usually unpleasant--layer of meaning to the proceedings. If he wasn’t busy accompanying himself as pianist, he’d probably sing with his fingers crossed behind his back.

At the Coach House, it was predictably Newman’s most obvious barbs that went over the best with the sell-out crowd: laugh-out-loud looks at racism (“Rednecks,” “Roll With the Punches”), bigotry (“Short People”), depersonalized sex (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”), reactionary nihilism (“Political Science”) and even spoiled rock stars not unlike Randy Newman (“My Life Is Good”).

At times, the show had all the hallmarks of a Mark Russell concert, with a few hundred of the presumably politically correct chuckling themselves silly at familiar, intimately framed music-hall-style satire.

Even during classics like 1972’s hilarious “God’s Song"--a bitter fist-shaking at an empty cosmos that beat XTC’s “Dear God” to the punch by 15 years--attendees chortled as if hearing all the funny lines for the first time. (Perhaps many of them were, which would explain why, when asked to sing along with his 1977 “Rider in the Rain,” about a third seemed to be singing “Rider on the Range.”)

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But with Newman, it’s the songs at which an audience doesn’t laugh out loud that linger the longest.

Among the highlights Saturday was “Baltimore,” a narrative so relentlessly depressive it’s easy to understand how a resident of that city could consider it an act of war on Newman’s part.

His piano lines--informed by classical as well as jazz, blues and pop influences--are usually as formally elegant as his verses tend to be profane. And never did he find a more haunting melody than in the escalating riffs underlining this down-and-out ditty, capped by one of his simplest and least satirically charged sentiments: “Man, it’s hard just to live.”

If that song was grim, Newman had two more--both from his latest album, “Land of Dreams"--that were positively scary . The ominous, vaguely murderous “Bad News From Home” produced a palpable hush among the otherwise cheerful crowd. Sample lines: “You can run but you can’t hide / You said you love me but I know you lied.”

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It’s easier to find a lighter side in “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do,” which the singer introduced as his “We Are the World.” (“Michael Jackson would sing this here,” he interjected during one verse.) A couple of Coach House patrons got a laugh out of Newman himself by getting into the anthem-ish spirit and swaying their arms in the air. But even the obviousness of the sarcasm doesn’t disguise the fact that this is as self-consciously angry a song as it’s possible to pen.

If Newman seems susceptible to succumbing to his role as Rock’s Premiere Funny Guy by running old novelty faves up the flag pole each time he performs, in the end he’s capable of throwing enough curve balls to keep the inattentive alert. Introducing “Political Science"--a gleeful paean to nuclear annihilation--he quipped, “I played this in Europe and they thought it was a joke.” The real April Fools’ gag may be that Newman is so much more serious than even many of his fans know.

Side note: Bemoaning a supposed lack of stardom, Newman noted: “I’ve come a long way from the Troubador 15 years ago. I’m playing at another Troubador 60 miles south.” The man doth protest too much; Aug. 26 finds him booked at the Universal Amphitheatre. Meanwhile, Newman--who appeared Friday at the Ventura Theatre in Ventura and was due again Sunday at the Coach House--headlines the Bacchanal in San Diego tonight and Tuesday.


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