Randy Newman, “Dark Matter” (Nonesuch)
On his 11th studio album, the 73-year-old songwriter shows no sign of being at a loss for words about the dark comedy known as the human condition. He even puts a new twist on his already unconventional approach to song form.
“The Great Debate” and “Brothers” suggest miniplays, with the deceptively laid-back singer playing several characters, mixing dialogue and singing, melody and exposition while mashing up several musical genres. The eight-minute “Great Debate” pits science against creationism and ponders the reality of climate change. It brims with windy orators, show-tune pomp and gospel fervor. In “Brothers,” the singer channels John and Bobby Kennedy plotting the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1962, before breaking into a rumba-driven homage to Cuban singer Celia Cruz.
“Putin” works as political satire and character sketch, a jaunty and anything-but-reverent portrait of the dictator as song-and-dance man. “What if the Kurds got in the way? Kurds and way, Kurds and way,” Newman-as-Putin sings, channeling Little Miss Muffet while musing about future conquests.
There’s a jauntiness to Newman’s stride in these songs, a mischievous twinkle in his sing-speak drawl that suggests an amalgam of Mose Allison, Allen Toussaint and Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman.
Yet Newman can also write a heartbreak ballad with the best of them, and “Dark Matter” contains a handful: “She Chose Me,” “Lost Without You,” “Wandering Boy.” His narrators ponder dashed hopes, personal inadequacies and encroaching mortality. Despite their failings, their decency glimmers through the twilight. And in “Sonny Boy” and “On the Beach,” empathy surfaces for an overlooked blues singer and a wayward surfer. Newman’s songs give them the dignity the world denied them.
GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune
Passion Pit, “Tremendous Sea of Love” (Wishart)
Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos says that he has stepped away from being a commercialized artist and that his new album is part of that move.
He initially made the album available for free to fans who tweeted support of his “weneedscience” campaign in March. Now he is making it an official release, with all proceeds going to psychiatric scientific research at the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center in Cambridge, Mass.
“Tremendous Sea of Love” often finds Angelakos at his most immediate, unguarded pop melodies such as “Hey K” and the upbeat thrill ride “I’m Perfect.”
The sweet ballad “To the Otherside” and the singer-songwriter throwback soul of “You Have the Right” could easily find a home on pop radio, the way “Take a Walk” or “The Reeling” did, if that was what Angelakos wanted at this point. However, instead of advancing his own interests, Angelakos is focusing on furthering the interests of all artists, which he hopes will help create the “Tremendous Sea of Love” that he seeks.
GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday
• Kesha, “Rainbow”
• David Rawlings, “Poor David’s Almanack”