SOUND ‘ROUND: American epics and new American standards

BY JON R. LaFOLLETTE

VARIOUS ARTISTS — AMERICAN EPIC: THE COLLECTION (SONY)

What Burns was to jazz and Scorsese to da blues, so now is antique revivalist Jack White to (what else?) obscure recordings produced during the roaring ’20s and depressed ‘30s. While White has turned this series into a worthy enterprise — including a four-part documentary film and a slew of specialized albums — this review concerns the 100-track box set that makes a worthy gift for collectors and notable playlist for the Spotify crowd. These five discs tell the story of America’s foray into mass media, when radio and nascent recordings revolutionized the way music was consumed. Buried among the many treasures are names and stories already etched in stone: Carter, Johnson, Jefferson, Rainey, House, Rodgers, Patton. But, true to the franchise’s namesake, these songs stretch beyond the Mississippi delta and Appalachian coal mines. There’s ragtime from Chicago, Spanish-language romance from the NYC, railroad blues through Memphis, Native American rituals, Alabama gospel, Hawaiian lullabies, jug bands, Creole ballads and Dust-Bowl era country. Altogether, this collection is a remarkable patchwork reflective of America’s diverse and spirited people. A good starting point is the Carter’s weeping willow followed by Barbecue Bob’s pro-Black anthem written during the era of lynch mobs. The music may be historical, but it’s history that’s alive and well. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree” / “Chocolate to the Bone” / “Cecillia”

APPRECIATE HISTORY

Vintage music connoisseur T. Bone Burnett (above) played a significant role in constructing the “American Epic” franchise, serving as executive producer. Burnett’s infatuation with classic recordings first broke into the mainstream with the soundtrack for “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” But Burnett’s goal isn’t just nostalgia. “All of us have a common foe, and that’s forgetfulness — where you forget where you came from and who you are,” Burnett told Rolling Stone. “We all appreciate that link to our history. We need that.”

RANDY NEWMAN — DARK MATTER (Nonesuch)

Political satire has been Newman’s forte since the days of Lee Atwater, so of course we get a trio of tragi-comedies out the gate. “The Great Debate” pits scientists against theologians in a battle for the country’s intellectual soul. That Newman lets the Bible thumpers win is an indictment of tribalism over reason. Sound familiar, Trump fans? Then comes “Brothers,” wherein RFK fails to stop JFK’s plan to rescue Cuban actress Celia Cruz. Rounding out his state of the union is the self-explanatory “Putin.” Just as pressing as humanity’s devolution toward insanity and authoritarianism is a date with the grave that awaits us all — and just shy of 74, Newman’s got reasons aplenty to be worried. Only thing is, he’s not. In fact, he’s as gracious and endearing as ever. Subjects of empathy include a soon-to-be widower, a father who mourns his son and a man humbled by a love he doesn’t deserve. But the auteur pities real people, too. Deceased bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson gets his due on an eponymous number that’s resplendent with lyrical charm and musical joy. “I’m the only bluesman in Heaven,” Williamson says through Newman’s distinct drawl. Here’s hoping Newman will provide good company beyond this mortal coil, and let this record show that he earned his ticket to paradise. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “She Chose Me” / “Sonny Boy” / “On the Beach”

A GOOD FRIEND

Randy Newman began releasing music in the late ’60s and saw a career rebirth three decades later after composing “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” the popular theme to the “Toy Story” film franchise. While Newman’s discography runs deep, the pianist and composer still performs his most notable anthem at every show. “Certainly the first time (some fans) heard me was “‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me,’” Newman told The Guardian. “I would never not play it now. It’s too big a deal to some people.”

A+ Rare masterwork

A Near flawless

A- Run-of-the-mill good

B+ Flawed but notable

American epic on Spotify

Randy Newman on Spotify

American Epic on YouTube

Randy Newman on YouTube