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Randy Newman
Randy Newman's 40-year career has placed him among the great American songwriters. (Michael Nagle, The New York Times)

Newman's songwriting stands the test of time

It's a testament to the twisted tides of pop culture that Randy Newman is best known for a song from a cartoon movie about toys. Before he scored ``Toy Story," Newman was famous for a novelty tune concerning the height-challenged -- a biting parody of bigotry that an astonishing slice of the population thought was actually about some angry piano dude's problem with short people.

Of course, that slice -- the ignorant, the stupid, the mean-spirited -- has provided Newman with a rich vein of material. Add to that the artist's own copious supply of self-loathing, political savvy, romantic longing, and wicked humor -- folded over 40 years into a body of work that bridges the pop standards and the rock era -- and Newman is starting to emerge as one of the great American songwriters.

And he's incredibly entertaining to boot. During his nearly 2 1/2-hour concert at Berklee on Tuesday, Newman, who performed alone at the piano, chatted and joked like a familiar friend. Meanwhile, the tunes piled up like so many small, unforgiving snapshots, tempered with Newman's signature wit but no less potent for their humor. A striking number of the older songs now sound eerily prescient. The ethnocentric bullies of ``Great Nations of Europe" and ``Political Science," the devastating flood of ``Louisiana 1927," the bumbling red-staters in ``Rednecks," and the delusional privileged class of ``My Life Is Good" are all leading players in current events, and were skewered to perfection by Newman.

The master social chronicler does warm and fuzzy, too -- in his own fashion. ``This is a love song I wrote for my first wife while married to my second," he said before ``I Miss You." Newman's exquisitely pretty ballad ``Marie" is, in the end, a scathing self-portrait of an unworthy lover. ``I don't have anything to say/But I'm going to say it anyway," he crooned, off-pitch and froggy, in ``I'm Dead," a droll critique of geriatric rockers.

Technically, at 62, Randy Newman is one of them. But with new songs like ``A Few Words in Defense of My Country," in which he catalogs the shortcomings of Nero and Caligula, Newman sets himself apart from his peers in pop music.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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