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Ken Tucker, Inquirer Popular-Music Critic

Randy Newman's lovely, funny, mean-spirited "Trouble in Paradise" (Warner Bros.) places him in the tradition of the best Los Angeles artists - his work is both cynical and idealistic at the same time.

Like novelist Raymond Chandler and film director Preston Sturges, Newman has been amused and appalled by the thought that moral integrity may be useless in the modern world. To these artists, life is one sham after another, and nowhere more so than in Hollywood, the place where "selling out" has an entire aesthetic.

Newman, of course, has done everything but sell out; he's a cult artist forever in search of a big audience. Newman began his career as a contract songwriter while still in his teens, and had impressive success - who wouldn't be impressed that he had songs recorded by both the O'Jays and Judy Collins?

But his quirks came to the fore: a penchant for writing from points of view other than his own, and a fondness for elaborate orchestral arrangements. This last was an influence gleaned from his uncles, Emil and Alfred Newman, each of whom had spectacularly successful careers as creators of music for movie soundtracks.

Newman began writing odder, more complex songs than could be recorded by the mainstream pop artists he was working for, and so the only alternative was for him to start singing them himself. He began doing this in 1968, despite the fact that Newman's voice is little better than an earnest frog's croak.

None of Newman's albums have sold well, but they've attracted extravagant praise from critics and earned him a small but rabid cult of fans who attend his concerts to bray at his jokes and ignore the somber ironies. It was that sort of audience that helped give Newman his only hit single, "Short People," in 1977. Newman's jab at diminutive folks actually stirred up a small controversy; it seems that short people took him seriously when he said they had "no reason to live."

In this, short people weren't being stupid or touchy: The essence of Newman's art is his ambivalence. In most of his music, it's impossible to gauge the degree to which he agrees with or condemns the actions of the bigots, jerks and freaks that populate his songs.

On "Good Old Boys" (1974) that ambivalence produced an edgy masterpiece, as he commenced the record professing to identify with self-admitted racist Lester Maddox and then implicated all of his listeners. His point was that it isn't just dumb Southerners who purvey racism.

"Trouble in Paradise" takes on big themes too. This new album's "Christmas in Capetown" is his strongest statement yet about the complacency of evil, as the song's white-colonial narrator glares menacingly at the blacks he employs. But at its best, "Trouble in Paradise" is most similar to Newman's greatest - and most ignored - album, 1970's "12 Songs," a collection of eclectic pop songs whose only common trait is their resolute contrariness.

Thus the album kicks off with "I Love L.A.," a celebration of Newman's home that's ironic only because Randy Newman happens to be singing it. If, say, Linda Ronstadt or Toto were trilling lines like "Roll down the windows, baby, put down the top/Crank up the Beach Boys, baby/Don't let the music stop," no one would blink. As it is, the chorus of "I Love L.A." is crooned lustily by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. And, by no coincidence at all, Ronstadt and half of the members of Toto put in appearances on various songs. As a satirist of the Los Angeles rock scene, Newman's craft is admired by the very people he likes to spoof.

Does this mean that Newman's humor is ultimately too soft? After all, the whole point of satire is to get the targets riled up and feeling insulted, isn't it? But throughout "Trouble in Paradise," Newman is working on so many levels of humor and rancor that the two qualities commingle - you end up laughing at things that would, in a slightly shifted context, seem outrageously offensive.

The best example of this is the triumph of the album, "My Life is Good," in which Newman's narrator is a repulsively smug rock star who will not stand to be criticized in any way. When the teacher at the private school his children attend informs him that one of his darlings is a spoiled brat, he explodes in a fury of arrogance. "My life is good, you old bag," he sneers - in other words, I'm rich, I'm influential and I won't hear anything I don't like. As an ex-resident of Los Angeles, I'm hear to testify that what you may think is Randy Newman's cartoon of a pompous buffoon is all too common a resident of that vast, blank metropolis.

Although the first single to be released from the album is "The Blues," a mild, catchy tune with co-vocals by Paul Simon, it's "My Life Is Good" that could prove a sleeper hit. With its sly references to Bruce Springsteen and its snarling, heaving rock music, the emotional crudity of "My Life is Good" could be a real crowd-pleaser - a novelty smash for any FM heavy-metal station with the guts to program it.

This is completely in line with Newman's new ambition. He's about to embark on extensive tours of Europe and then the United States, and he's been quoted as saying, "I'm going to do everything this time. Conditions are too bad out there to be hip anymore. It's time to start working for a living."

Certainly the high-gloss sheen of "Trouble in Paradise," combined with the low-life rowdiness of its characters, give it more of a chance for commercial success than any album Newman has ever recorded. For once, perhaps radio listeners lulled into somnolence by the modulated murmurs of Barry Manilow and those Toto boys will snap to attention upon hearing Newman's nagging growl. Then again, they may not. In either case, however, "Trouble in Paradise" will have proved its complex point.