Friday, June 16, 2017

Midnight Fade Away

Today's formative-album replay: Randy Newman, Ragtime [Music From the Motion Picture]. He's since grown into a reasonably accomplished film composer, but Randy Newman's first major stab at it, in 1981, was a decidedly mixed bag. Charged with aping fin-de-siecle period music for Milos Forman's uneven film of E.L. Doctorow's novel, Hollywood's resident white bluesman cobbled together a grab bag of rolling rags, starchy marches, music box novelties, prim minuets, and occasionally rip-roaring overtures ("Clef Club 1" and "2".) And unlike, say, Marvin Hamlisch with The Sting or Henry Mancini with pretty much everything, Newman didn't shape his tunes into standalone pieces for this soundtrack record, which makes it a lopsided listen at best. Along with the variable period sampler there's a middling song demo featuring his froggy voice and thumping foot pedal ("Change Your Ways"), and what sounds like a slapped together highlight reel of score cues ("Denouement").

On the other hand, tunesmiths gonna tune: The title theme and its vocal iteration, "One More Hour," add up to as great a song as the man has ever written, a heart-tugging carousel waltz Jerome Kern would have been proud to put his name on. Forget bars: The full melody consists of just 32 notes, most of them a full measure long, and its lyric is a mere 25 words (or 18, if you don't count a final repetition). It's a work of monumental, exquisitely sculpted simplicity, in other words, and in Jennifer Warnes' gently quavering vocal rendition the song evokes a statuary angel--the Bethesda Fountain, say--under whose wide wings whole worlds of feeling swell and rise. Newman may never have developed the range to muster longform narrative or theatrical music (despite some valiant efforts), but few have matched him in songcraft. Another way to put it: I don't think he could have written the brilliant score for the 1997's Ragtime musical, but great as that score is, there's no single song in it as heart-piercingly good as "One More Hour."

Previous Randy Newman replay: 12 Songs.

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