Various Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman

Few artists are as deserving of a retrospective of their musical contribution as Randy Newman. The consummate singer-songwriter’s canon marks a high point in American songwriting yet his claim to fame appears to be, most recently, his comparatively crass, commercial success as a Hollywood soundtrack composer-for-hire. Leave it to the cream of Sugar Hill’s eclectic line-up to set the record straight — providing a rich and varied canvas to parade such delightfully caustic, satirical fare as "Political Science,” "Rednecks” and "Sail Away.” Could there be a more a propos, prophetic song than "Louisiana 1927,” delivered here by Sonny Landreth, with his distinctive, haunting grasp of the New Orleans tapestry? Newman’s lazy drawl of a voice is captured perfectly in Tim O’Brien’s take on "Sail Away” — a commercial jingle for the slave trade. Or, could a more pinched vocal deliver the working-class goods any better than Del McCoury does on ”Birmingham”? The Duhks throw an added, twisted swing into "Political Science,” complimenting Newman’s already satirical bite. Steve Earle’s "Redneck” is a disappointment as his affected vocal technique obscures the power of the lyrics. Likewise, Alison Moorer’s "Marie” seems out-of-place with its jarring start that never quite allows the song to recover. Yet there are more wins than losses across this remarkable homage to Newman’s legendary tongue-in-cheekiness. If you missed his sophisticated genius the first time around, you can’t afford to miss this. Too bad it wasn’t a double-disc — there’s certainly lots of material. (Sugar Hill)