In regularly exploring politics and American culture, Randy Newman’s best songwriting often walks a sardonic line between humor and insight. On the tribute album Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman, even his material from early in his career in the 1970s still sounds relevant.
Given a semi-scat, lounge treatment by newgrass band The Duhks, “Political Science,” with its showstopping line “Let’s drop the big one,” is about the Nixonian politics of arrogance and resentment. Sound familiar?
The plaintive title song, sung by Tim O’Brien, could have been used by sharecroppers to lure Africans onto ships and into lives of slavery. Of course, slavery here hasn’t been a hot topic since the Civil War, but its aftermath was and still is — and probably will forever be.
After Hurricane Katrina, Newman’s own version of “Louisiana 1927” got a lot of airplay, with its story of an earlier flood and its metaphorical ramifications. Blues rocker Sonny Landreth’s version is musically busier but with less edge.
Other interesting interpretations are Steve Earle’s interpretation of “Rednecks,” the Joe Ely/Reckless Kelly version of “Rider in the Rain,” Bela Fleck’s whimsical banjo instrumental look at “Burn On,” and Marc Broussard’s take on “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” a seduction song with piano, percussion, organ, and sax.
When Newman wasn’t using humor as a weapon, he often painted subtle, poignant portraits of ordinary lives. Kim Richey’s version of “Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father” is quiet, simple, and moving, especially to the listener whose beloved parents are aging.