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Little Criminals
Randy Newman

Warner 3079
Released: October 1977
Chart Peak: #9
Weeks Charted: 29
Certified Gold: 1/24/78

Randy NewmanAccording to my Webster's International, irony is "a sort of humor, ridicule, or light sarcasm which adopts a mode of speech the intended implication of which is the opposite of the literal sense of words." They might have gone on to say that though this rhetorical form is a popular weapon among politicians and other jawboners, it is not a very common mode of expression among songwriters. Except for Randy Newman, who has just dumped Little Criminals, another heavy load of irony, on America's doorstep and is lurking over there just around the corner waiting to be misunderstood -- again.

"Misunderstood" refers to the big trouble with irony; whether you deal in the light or the heavy variety, a however carefully you balance yourself along the razor edge of your intention, a whole lot of perverse people are going to miss the point and take you literally. And others, even more perverse, will get your point -- but fervently wish that you hadn't made it. "Again" refers to Newman's latest release, Good Old Boys (1974), which was widely -- perhaps inevitably -- misunderstood since there was more than a suggestion of unresolved ambiguity in Newman's own attitude toward his subject matter and a good deal of language that was not what one would exactly call... um... lyrical.

Randy Newman - Little Criminals
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Little Criminals runs the gamut from no irony at all to light irony (one's own foibles), medium irony (other people's foibles), and heavy irony (society's foibles). Through it all thread several other themes -- the Failure of the American Dream (is there anybody besides me who is having trouble figuring out just what that was supposed to be?), the movies (in their myth-making aspect), and the usual Newmanisms, bits and pieces of verbal Americana (mostly catchlines from songs).

Newman's voice is unremarkable -- which is another way of saying that he doesn't have one. What he has is a splendid instrument of communication, a hoarse, husky, smoke-cured whisper that can sound confidential, confessional, even conspiratorial. He speaks the modish rock dialect (no final g's, no "a" in "about," no "be" in "because") fluently and without self-consciousness, and he has a uniquely characteristic, oddly endearing habit of chopping off the ends of lyric lines short-windedly, as if with a tape editor's knife. His lyric gifts are so compelling that they tend to draw attention away from his musical ones, which are just as outstanding but subtler. Most of his melodies are habit-forming on first hearing, and his arrangements have a lapidary quality -- perfect setting, perfect fit -- that permanently pre-empt the listener's affections. To top all this off, he has surrounded himself with the Eagles and others of Los Angeles' most skilled (and therefore ubiquitous) session gypsies, a tight little circle of super-pros of the kind that rise and soak up all the work wherever the competition is the stiffest. (What do they call themselves, I wonder? Sons of the Holmby Hills Pioneers?)

There are no songs here that one could call less than beautifully crafted, but the spectrum is impressively broad and the listener is bound to be drawn more to some than to others. "Baltimore" ("...a hard town by the sea") is about a dying city, a vision grim enough to get this album banned in all of Maryland, but then the song might be about any metropolis anywhere that woke up one morning to find that it had fallen irrevocably behind in its housekeeping. "I'll Be Home" is that winsomely consoling ("You can always count on me") gospel tune Harry Nilsson sang so brilliantly on his Nilsson Sings Newman album (RCA LSP 4289). Newman's performance here is good enough, different enough, to make me prefer both. But is he kidding?

The tension in Newman between the obscurantist impulse and the desire to communicate is nowhere more apparent than in the fine "In Germany Before the War." It is one of the medium ironic songs (other people's foibles), but it ends up, largely because of its obsessively beautiful Kurt Weillish melody, pathetic as well. It is about -- very allusively -- the old German move M, in which Peter Lorre starred as a child-murderer. It presents an interior landscape only hinted at in the film -- Eros run amok in an inappropriate vessel, imprisoned in a squat, ugly figure behind the little round windows of Coke-bottle glasses. It neither adds to nor takes away from the song to know this (I had already replayed it compulsively about ten times before I tumbled to the plot); just remember that most native Los Angelenos are, like Newman, movie ridden ("Guess who I ran into at the laundromat today -- Olympe Bradna!") and that they reach almost instinctively, when they do reach, for film metaphors. Better such fiction than such fact as Charles Manson or Son of Sam.

"Jolly Coppers on Parade" is, I suppose, lightly ironic, too -- an example of the condescension with which the grown man sees the child he was -- but do I detect just a slight hint of "police brutality" as well? Newman tips his hand on the punkish "Kathleen" by subtitling it "Catholicism Made Easier." He needn't have bothered, for the lyrics (who could possibly, these days, take "I've always been crazy about Irish girls" seriously?) make it clear that the target is romantic cliché in that candy-box territory somewhere between Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. The cameo "Old Man on the Farm" is probably straight; it is touching even if it isn't, and the melody is haunting. "You Can't Fool the Fat Man" didn't reach me lyrically, but the down-river flavor of the jazz arrangement is mighty tasty.

The title song, "Little Criminals," is a rocker, a piece of "American Dream" irony only slightly relieved by its black-comedy joke. It will be misunderstood, but you can't say that Newman doesn't take chances. "Rider in the Rain" is a spoof, a mock-heroic cowboy song (what kind of cowboy works in his uncle's feed store one day an is off rapin' and pillagin' across the plain the next?) probably intended to demythologize some of that sentimental Old West claptrap still triggering tear ducts on the Late Show. Pokin' cows is a nasty job for nasty people, but I predict that "Rider" will go straight to the hearts of old Gene Autry fans anyway.

Another "funny" song is "Short People," and it will probably give Newman more trouble than anything else on this set. It is a kind of bigot's national anthem, a portmanteau that will accommodate any prejudice. If Newman is not already concocting his own additional verses ("Tall," "Thin," "Fat," "Old," "Young," "White," "Black," "Red," "Grey," "Gay," and, yes, "Straight People"), then somebody sooner or later is going to do it for him with gusto in finished-basement singalongs from coast to coast. Misunderstood again (ask Archie Bunker about that).

"Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America" is also American-Dream-Ironic, a grab bag of neatly inaccurate history, national-anthem tags, and pop fantasy guaranteed to find friends only among the already persuaded. It ends with the line "And may all your Christmases be white," one of those monumental non sequiturs of the ironic mode that I think of as a "dorothy" (after Dorothy Parker, author of the most perfect example of the genre: And I am Marie of Rumania). Perhaps best of all, this bitterly comic mini-tirade of disaffection is mounted against a Salvation Army band background that makes all its artfully contrived jingoist vulgarity glitter like a chromium chamber pot.

Best for last, as usual: "Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father" is quite simply one of the grandest inventions I can ever remember encountering in American pop music, an art-song jewel of passionately understated lyrical and musical yearning approaching the sublime. It's my kind of Mozart, and I'm not kidding.

- William Anderson, Stereo Review, 1/78.

Bonus Reviews!

The irreverent Newman returns to the scene with his first album in nearly three years. His songwriting has taken on an even more sarcastic tone, as Newman's cutting, wry and sardonic humor fiercely hits below the belt. At other times, he is an emotionally sensitive writer able to convey vivid lyrical passages. Eagles' Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey and Don Henley contribute on guitars and background vocals while Linda Ronstadt's guitarist Waddy Wachtel, Ry Cooder, J.D. Souther, Klaus Voorman, Andy Newmark and bassist Willie Weeks supply the instrumentation. Newman's dreamy piano playing and distinct vocals are often at their effective peak. Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman produced this offbeat assortment of Newman ditties. Best cuts: "Short People," "In Germany Before The War," "Little Criminals," "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation Of Albert Einstein In America," "Texas Girl At The Funeral Of Her Father."

- Billboard, 1977.

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review:
Sail Away

Album Review:
Good Old Boys

Album Review:
Harps And Angels

Album Review:
Dark Matter

Single Review:
"Short People"

Randy Newman:
In His Own Words

Randy Newman Lyrics

Randy Newman Videos

Randy Newman Mugshots

The most hilarious and haunting album from a songwriter who has dispensed with meaninglessly abstract symbols, the great bane of Seventies rock.

- Charles M. Young, Rolling Stone, 12/15/77.

Little Criminals is Randy Newman's first album in... hell, we don't even want to count the years. In his absence, a whole generation of semi-demented, would-be perverts calling themselves punk rockers has tried to cop his act. We aren't calling Newman the first punk rocker -- for one thing, he's intelligent. For another, his piano belongs in a Salvation Army band or a smoky San Francisco bawdyhouse. But we are calling Newman perverted, wry and one of our favorite crazies. The long-awaited album is everything we hoped for. There's a vicious song about short people. There's a song about a city that begins with the letter B (first "Birmingham," now "Baltimore." Next stop, Berkeley?). There are hypnotic love songs with simple phrases running over chords like worry beads. There's a patriotic number called "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America." The album's getting plenty of airplay; it might even make Newman a star.

- Playboy, 2/78.

Always the master craftsman, Newman doesn't waste a second here, doesn't permit an inept lyrical insight or musical fillip. But over the past three years he doesn't seem to have written one song that ranks with his best. Among all these explorations of America's dirty white underbelly, only the out-and-out jokes -- the gross intolerance of "Short People" and the Eagles music on "Rider in the Rain" -- distinguish themselves. Very disappointing. B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Because it included "Short People," Newman's only hit single (it charted for twenty weeks, holding down the No. 2 spot for three weeks), this was easily Newman's most popular album, reaching No. 9. Unfortunately, it is far from his best -- his lyrical muse seems to have deserted him. He goes through the usual motions all right, but too often the results are cruel, rather than creative, let alone insightful. It does have its moments: "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America" and the L.A. country send-up, "Rider in the Rain," performed with the Eagles. But two out of twelve is a lousy batting average, even for a lesser artist. What it does have are creative, lush musical arrangements, which are fairly effectively reproduced on the CD, albeit with slight compression and a tendency toward harshness in the heavier vocal passages. B-

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

On Little Criminals, Newman's penchant for satirically illuminating the quirks in human nature earned him a million-selling #2 hit with "Short People," a song that dealt with the issue of bigotry. It also earned him the loathing of thousands of short people who failed to get the message. Aside from that controversy, Little Criminals was relatively tame by Newman standards. "Baltimore," "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America," and "Rider in the Rain" were among the standout tracks. * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Sarcasm reaches new heights in the lyrics of this always witty, always on target cerebral album, which represents clever Randy before he became Hollywood Randy. There's a scary amount of good songs here, many of which spoof on everything considered holy -- no doubt some petite people never recovered from the sly, controversial "Short People" -- just a small example of his twisted and comical look at life. * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

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