As some familiar with Randy Newman's rich catalog know, when the 64-year-old singer and songwriter croons, "Laugh and be happy/Don't you ever wear a frown/Don't let the bastards ground you down," it's delivered with as hefty a dose of irony as one can cram into a 2:19 pop song. But it's likely that the biggest portion of his current audience--the kids and parents who've only heard him on the soundtracks of Pixar movies such as "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc." and "Cars"--are unaware that his response to a politically and personally corrupt world is to sneer and laugh. The facts that he's only had one song that approached a mainstream breakthrough ("Short People" in 1977) and has only made three proper albums in the last 20 years doesn't help.
The new "Harps and Angels" isn't likely to convert any of those casual fans, but there's plenty here to please those who've had to settle for Jon Stewart's brand of satire in Newman's absence. Over the gently shuffling piano grooves of his beloved, now struggling New Orleans, Newman chortles at his own mortality and human shortcomings in the title track and on "Potholes"; dabbles in the sort of extremely un-politically correct comedy that got him into trouble with "Short People" on "Korean Parents" and "Only a Girl"; briefly drops the defenses to revel in pathos in the relatively straight ballads "I Miss You" and "Losing You" (actually the weakest parts of this disc) and, best of all, points a verbal and musical machinegun at the current powers that be.
"Living in the richest country in the world/Wouldn't you think you'd have a better life?" Newman asks in the Kurt Weill-styled "A Piece of the Pie" while mocking ineffectual responses such as Jackson Browne's brand of musical activism and John Mellencamp's advertiser-friendly populism. Then there's "A Few Words (in Defense of Our Country)," reworked from an Op Ed piece Newman wrote for the New York Times, which notes that while "the leaders we have [are] the worst that we've had," they're not so bad in comparison to, say, Hitler, Stalin and Caligula--though he is very disappointed in three of our Supreme Court judges: "A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now, too/But I defy you, anywhere in the world/To find me two Italians as tight-ass as the two Italians we got/And as for the brother/Well, Pluto's not a planet anymore either."
His points may be obvious, but few state them so eloquently.