The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1
Randy Newman received the greatest-hits treatment two years ago, but this new collection of self-written standards feels much more personal than The Best of Randy Newman's career-spanning hit parade. Songbook's simple setupthe man and his pianoensures that the classics sound crisp: The faux-noble refrain of "Sail Away" has never sounded statelier, while Newman's ironic chord changes on satires like "God's Song" have never seemed so mischievous, as they replace our preconceptionsabout race, politics, religionwith wry resignation. Newman knows about human foibles. He's exhibited some himself by taking on a few too many Disney projectsa phase of his career reflected in Songbook's inclusion of "When She Loved Me," an instrumental version of his melancholy ode from Toy Story 2. Yet the spare piano treatment carries this midlevel weeper to a state of grace, while another cinematic instrumental, "Ragtime," might be the album's definitive track. Observing the oft-quoted Joplin proviso ("It's never right to play ragtime fast"), Newman has composed a redoubtable repertoire of arch, leisurely Tin Pan Alley-style poetry with retractable fangs. Pop satire tends to speed by (e.g., the Dandy Warhols' "Bohemian Like You"), but Newman's, with its finely balanced wit, real sociopolitical awareness, and propensity for sincere emotion (most obviously in "I Think It's Going to Rain Today"), doesn't need to. NEAL SCHINDLER
The No Music of Aiff's
Themselves are not in the business of catering to purists. 2002's The No Music, a spectacularly convoluted mess of fractured beats, rhymes that don't, and enough electronic jizz to keep Tigerbeat6 in business for a year, left even some undie-rap spuds flummoxed enough to yank the disc from the hip-hop sections of their backpacks and file it somewhere between Lou Barlow and the salami. The No Music of Aiff's ain't gonna change their minds. Does anyone seriously think for a moment that hippie-spawn interlocutor Doseone and Jel, Themselves' mulleted beat-builder, could hand The No Music over to the likes of Hood, the Notwist, and Electric Birds (to name but a few) for remixing and get Chingy backor even Aesop Rockor anything the least bit more linear than, say, Sun City Girls or Firesign Theater? And let's not omit Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd, who appear to be the model for Hrvatski's effects-saturated treatment of "Good People Check." Andrew Broder, aka Fog, bangs the effects to the brink of comedy on "Darkysdemo," while Alias uses 'em to render the suicide ballad "Only Child Explosion" even more haunting than the original. Realistically, there's hardly a dry moment on the album, which is fine. Dose's surreal lyrics and whimsical delivery sound like they belong in Munchkinland in the first place, while Jel's beats, alternately "dead cat clear" (to borrow a phrase from Dose) and proggishly ornate, beg for further breaking. In the end, it's hard not to wonder what a remix of the remix might sound like, especially if you're the sort of person who thinks hip-hop could use a Nurse With Wound. ROD SMITH
Themselves play Graceland with Clue to Kalo at 8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 12. $10.
(Kill Rock Stars)
Whoever said there are a finite number of stories to be told was clearly not listening to the Decemberists. Although lead singer Colin Meloy's aggressively nasal delivery can recall Jeff Mangum from the late, lamented Neutral Milk Hotel, his lyrics swell from their folk-pop seams in a manner all their own. Like a costume-drama-obsessed theater troupe, this Portland outfit peppers its jangly songs with a semester's worth of Comp Lit prose and historical jargon, resulting in something that would seem maddeningly pretentiousMeloy occasionally overdraws from his five-cent word budget with references to brickbats and pantaloonsif the songs weren't so damn catchy. The bouncy, accordion-flecked "Chimbley Sweep" (that's right, "chimbley") burrows into your head with enough reel-around-the-campfire force that you can almost feel the filth of another century rising under your fingernails, but the Decemberists aren't simply looking to charm Civil War re-enactment buffs. The pensive Travis-goes-to-grad-school ballad "The Bachelor and the Bride" avoids further comparisons by tossing between its strolling electric guitar lines the weary, distantly anachronistic threat to "box your ears and leave you here stripped bare." And while the swooning "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" won't shock anyone by decrying the town's superficiality, Meloy's biting images of "sallow-cheeked ladies" and the ocean's "garbled vomit" elevate the song beyond its worn-out theme. CHRIS BARTON
The Decemberists play the Crocodile Cafe with Earlimart and Laura Veirs at 9 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 6. $8.