Randy Newman has earned a nice living in recent years as a film composer, but connoisseurs covet his Seventies work, when he emerged as one of the most cutting and empathic of American singer-songwriters. So his return to political-minded material on Harps and Angels is reason to wrap yourself in the flag and cheer.
Newman works with piano, an orchestra and a Dixieland-style combo, using American musical tradition to amplify irony and yank heartstrings. The best moments echo classics like "Sail Away" and "Louisiana 1927," songs that mixed pathos and bruised patriotism with brutal wit. The set's keystone is "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," released on iTunes last year. A state-of-the-union ballad that cops musical DNA from "America the Beautiful," its lyrics raised eyebrows last year when they ran as an op-ed piece in The New York Times — albeit minus the final verse about "tight-ass" Italian Supreme Court justices. Its press-secretary punch lines about how the Bush administration ain't so bad compared with Stalin are Colbert Report-hilarious. But its eulogy for American empire and a people "adrift in the land of the brave and the home of the free" is profoundly sad.
Elsewhere, the jaunty "Laugh and Be Happy" winks at two-faced immigration policy, while "Korean Parents" is a gleefully stereotyping indictment of U.S. child-rearing set to chop-suey orchestration. The funniest number, "A Piece of the Pie," affectionately skewers pop polemicists John Mellencamp and Jackson Browne. But Newman's "Feels Like Home," once covered by Chantal Kreviazuk on the Dawson's Creek soundtrack, is an irony-free love song — perhaps for a dear nation that, after all, we'd be willing to go into therapy with.