It is difficult for performing intellects to find a rock-and-roll niche. Generally, the form tends to deport its intelligentsia to the musical fringe. Thus far, only Paul Simon and Bob Dylan have achieved both widespread commercial success and lasting intellectual statements. (Pete Townsend's work with The Who also qualifies, but his contribution is largely hidden by the band's power rock approach.)
There is hope, though, Tom Waits, who will be in concert at Lisner Auditorium this Sunday, and Randy Newman, who performed at Constitution Hall last Saturday, may be on the fringe of rock and roll but they are squarely in the center of society's nervous system. Both have new albums out this week which bring our insecurities to the surface and prove that contemporary music can still be a superbly effective medium for social commentary.
Waits and Newman are not composers so much as short story writers who record their pieces rather than print them. And, like the best authors, they develop a keen sense of character and environment and let these represent the macrocosm.
Neither artist will ever win any voice contests. Newman pushes his songs over their arangements while Waits' gravel-pit tone sounds a lot like Root Boy Slim at half speed. yet, far from a handicap,their vocals are perfectly attuned to their individual styles. Newmans sarcasm and underlying sensitivity are more easily understood by his inflections and Waits' stories of the down-and-out lend themselves to his own semi-drunk delivery. It is hard to determine cause and effect here but, like the chicken and the egg, it doesn't matter which came first, the style or the songs to match it - just that the results are correct.
Randy Newman's "Little Criminals" (Warner Brothers BSK 3079) plays on the same themes as "Sail Away" (Warner Brothers MS 2064) and "Good Old Boys" (Warner Brothers MS 2193). What keeps the 12 new compositions (11, really: "I'll Be Home" is an early Newman tune redone here) from being a mere sequel is his extraordinary sense of place. No one in popular music is as good as Newman at creating an emotional tone that evokes such clear physical images.
"In Germany Before the War" is a haunting sketch of impending doom through indirect references. "Old Man on the Farm" is a Newman-esque portrait of an individual alive past his time, and the spare lyrics allow for pathos without mawkish sentimentality. Both these compositions accent Newman's uncanny use of words. After he says all he needs to say, he stops - sometimes leaving a lyricless chord hanging pensively in mid-air.
Newman has always been a jokester and "Little Criminals" has its share of laughs. "Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easier)" falls into his self-designated "deseased love song" category and "Short People" is a riotous ode to paranola with possible hit-sinle potential. (No Newman tune has ever even come close to being an AM radio "hit." However, this album seems to have been produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman with a broader audience in mind.)
Though "Short People" has teh funiest lyrics, "Rider in the Rain" is the Swiftian satire in the bunch. Newman uses a plausible country rock score to send up the entire California cowboy music scene. The facts that Newman himself is a California native and that he uses the Eagles - the epitome of the genre - for backup vocals are added zingers.
The lyrics are barely exaggerated West Coast cool ("My mother's in St. Louis/My bride's in Tennessee/So I'm riding to Arizona/With a banjo on my knee") and, just when you think he's gotten on the last yuk, Newman stops the music and drawls "Take it boys" as the Eagles swoon into a final chorus. The contrast to the hard-edged urban urgency of "Baltimore" and the title cut is startling and shows the author's emotional range.
Unlike Newman, who uses cities and stereotypes to represent the masses, Tom Waits deals with the dregs: hookers, pimps, bar nightowls and any other derelict whose tale of woe hits a nerve in all of us. His new release, "Foreign Affairs" (Asylum 7E-1117), is another compilation of notes from the underside.
"Cinny's Waltz," an instrumental that sounds copped from Philip Marlowe movies, opens the album and introduces eight stories of despair. Most are direct, though "I Never Talk to Strangers," a melancholy exchange with Bette Midler, implies a barely perceptible optimism. "Muriel" is a lament to a lost love in the same vein as Frank Sinatra's classic "Angel Eyes." The comparison is apt since both Waits and Sinatra are "saloon singers" - only the eras have been changed to protect the innocent.
"Potter's Field" is a rambling aural film noir featuring remarkable atmospheric instrumental support from tenor saxophonist Frank Vicari and Jim. Hughart's walking bass. "Burma Shave" and "Barber Shop" are tightly woven embroideries of lowdown lifers while "Jack and Neal/California Here I Come" turns Al Jolson's flagwaver inside out.
The title cut is a treatise on expanding personal boundaries that uses shattered dreams as an outline and tough memories as filler.
Tom Waits is difficult to describe, since his lyrics usually read obliquely when quoted out of context. There is no way to describe his musical personal accurately except to say that his last record ("Small Change" Asylum 7E-1078) was reviewed in this nespaper as a spoken-word album. "Foreign Affairs," sung and spoken, is a sharp piece of omniscient observance that must be heard several times to be fully appreciated.
Like most good authors, Tom Waits and Randy Newman only thinly disguise their affection for their characters, who tell us so much about ourselves. Like many non-mainstream performers, Newman and Waits have not yet gained the mass popularity that lesser acts now command. Like all true artists, they prefer doing their best work to catering to fickle public tastes; and, naturally, the public is richer for that.