Orchestras have often been employed by pop and rock musicians either to give some old-world timbre and gravitas to the younger, lighter style, or to expand its structures into classical dimensions. The results have frequently been unhappy or at least have not aged well. However, for me, there have been two musicians in the pop-rock genre who have used orchestras exceptionally successfully.
The first is Randy Newman. I don’t think he is classically trained, but his uncles were film music composers so perhaps that is where his aptitude for orchestral arrangements comes from. They certainly suited songs which were composed on piano and constructed in a story-telling style which seemed to belong to an earlier pre-rock era. Except for one feature : Newman’s lyrics, underlined by his rough-edged, low-pitch delivery, have an irreverence and irony, and often cynicism, which certainly belongs to the social and political shifts and doubts of the 1960s and 1970s.
In recent years, Newman has become commercially successful by diversifying, in the family tradition, into film score composing, gaining Oscar nominations and awards. While gratified with this deserved fame, I do feel his more distinctive work came in his early albums.
A few examples from You Tube where the orchestration blends powerfully with song and voice : “Sail Away”, where his uses his familiar lyrical device of the unreliable narrator, in this case a slave trader encouraging Africans of the attractions of the New World; “Louisiana 1927”, an account of the Mississipi river flood of that year, which seemed to gain a greater celebrity after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and “In Germany Before the War” apparently based on a real-life serial killer.
The second maestro is almost totally forgotten. David Ackles recorded only four albums before he died in 1999. My main acquaintance with him is through his third album American Gothic, which he actually recorded in the UK with the London Symphony Orchestra and which was produced by Bernie Taupin, whose career was zooming at the time as the regular lyricist of Elton John.
Part of my fondness for the album first time around derived from how it seemed to synthesise with other works with which I was becoming acquainted. The album sleeve included a homage to the famous painting by Grant Wood, and its subject matter evoked the poetry of Robert Frost and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.
The album’s highlight is “Montana Song”: a story which combines both the personal and the epic, with an air of the pre-1960s past which sounded even stranger when it was released in 1972 than it does now.
Other favourites are the bleak narrative of the title track and “The Ballad of the Ship of State”, a metaphor presumably about the Vietnam war. The Brecht and Weill influences of both these songs seem very strong to my ear now.
Although other samples of Ackles’ work on You Tube show blues and country influences more prominently, the Weill influence shows again, this time in a sparer form, on a track from the first album, “Laissez Faire” .