At the outset of his career, Jonathan Richman was considered a radical trailblazer, precociously exploring minimalist rock years before such behavior became popular (or even acceptable). Not only was his unique approach enormously influential on later bands, original members of the Modern Lovers went on to become successful in such groups as Talking Heads (Jerry Harrison) and the Cars (David Robinson). Over the course of his recordings, however, Richman’s predilection for childlike whimsy replaced the angst-ridden emotionalism of his first songs, and he challenged his audience by refusing to remain the same character he had been a decade earlier.
The first Modern Lovers album was cobbled together by Beserkley supremo Matthew King Kaufman from demos, the bulk of which had been produced by John Cale in 1972 when it looked as if the band would be signed to Warner Bros. Despite the fragmentary nature of its parts, The Modern Lovers is surprisingly coherent and contains all of Richman’s classic creations: “Roadrunner,” “Pablo Picasso,” “Girl Friend,” “She Cracked,” etc. The stark, simple performances highlight an adenoidal New England voice that lacks everything technical but nothing emotional. One of the truly great art-rock albums of all time.
The demos dredged up for The Original Modern Lovers date from 1973 and were produced by Kim Fowley. The LP includes two versions of “Roadrunner,” plus “Astral Plane,” “Girlfren” and “She Cracked,” as well as some otherwise unrecorded numbers. Despite thin sound it offers slightly different approaches from what surfaced on the first album. Shoddy but relevant. Precise Modern Lovers Order is a collection of amazing early-’70s live tracks belatedly issued first on a French LP.
Although released shortly after The Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers was recorded five years later with a totally different band, and has little in common with the first LP. Not realizing the time frame, many people took this as a sign of artistic inconsistency, and were put off by such silliness as “Abominable Snowman in the Market” and “Hey There Little Insect.” The record is, in fact, pretty great, blending guilelessness with such heart-wrenching pieces of honesty as “Important in Your Life.” Enough of Richman’s early approach carries over to temper the giddy romps, and it’s a thoroughly charming, low-key album.
Rock’n’Roll takes Richman even further away from seriousness. Mixing traditional folk songs and lullabies with originals that would do Mister Rogers proud (“Ice Cream Man,” “Rockin’ Rockin’ Leprechaun”), the ironically titled album stretched the ability of his adult fans to join in the fun. Abiding wittiness—like “Dodge Veg-O- Matic”—hedges the album’s stylistic bet, but many were left wondering just where Richman was heading.
Live, recorded in England, is full of the flakiest songs in his repertoire — featherweight and best suited for very young people. The Jonathan Richman Songbook is a compilation, as is The Beserkley Years, a fine CD-only collection of eighteen classic tracks, both studio and live. The unrelated UK-only 23 Great Recordings is an even bigger anthology covering basically the same ’70s material.
Back in Your Life was recorded (after a long layoff) with two different bands, the regular Modern Lovers and a vocals/string bass/glockenspiel ensemble. The songs—which include five uniquely appropriate cover versions—are totally over the top, as fanciful and ridiculous as possible. There’s nothing remotely connected to the original Modern Lovers’ rock’n’roll work; comparisons to Groucho Marx’s musical ventures are more relevant.
Released four years later, Jonathan Sings! is a wonderful LP showcasing a fully revitalized Richman with an altogether new outlook. Audibly bursting with love, Richman eloquently (in his own ingenuously clumsy way) sings of “That Summer Feeling,” exclaims “You’re the One for Me” and rejoices at having “Somebody to Hold Me.” Elsewhere, he defends the innate wisdom of infants in “Not Yet Three,” offers a new look at world travel (“Give Paris One More Chance”) and even extols the joys of “This Kind of Music.” The new Modern Lovers—two women and three men— have a strong but understated presence that keeps Richman exciting without getting in his way. Simply put, Jonathan Sings! is one of the most uplifting albums in memory, and Richman’s best since his debut.
Jonathan’s stayed on the right track (with an exception) ever since, issuing one charming album after the next. Rockin’ and Romance (retaining two Modern Lovers from Sings!) is a spartan, casually produced (to the point of sonic obscurity) affair, but songs about “The Beach,” “Vincent Van Gogh” (number two in Richman’s Great Painters series), baseball (“Walter Johnson,” “The Fenway”), travel (“Down in Bermuda”) and other winning topics are all filled with his remarkable wit and intelligence. Who else could write a paean to bluejeans that discusses the relative merits of various brands without being mistaken for a commercial? Slight demerits for the shoddy sound quality, but no complaints whatsoever about the music.
It’s Time For reunites Richman with erstwhile Modern Lover guitarist Asa Brebner. The audio fidelity is better; an accordionist, producer Andy Paley’s guitar work and Richman’s sax tooting make for an unusual, busier-than- ordinary (relatively speaking) rock sound. “Yo Jo Jo” is a crazed instrumental raveup, the most electric thing he’s done in this decade. Richman’s lyrical concerns are more general than in the recent past: for every “Double Chocolate Malted” (which has a strangely cranky tone to it) or “Corner Store,” there are two songs (e.g., “It’s You,” “When I Dance,” “Just About Seventeen,” “This Love of Mine”) that are less specific and to a degree less captivating. A confusing (or is that confused?) album, It’s Time For has the aura of a transitional project.
Never fear. Accompanied by a second guitarist and a drummer, Richman grabbed his oft-neglected saxophone and cut the magical Modern Lovers 88, an all-too-brief set of semi-electric rock tunes that hark back in composition and presentation to Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers. The woolly “Dancin Late at Night” and the romantic “Gail Loves Me” display a budding Holly orientation that bears more exploration; “New Kind of Neighborhood” resembles Dion; “California Desert Party,” “Everything’s Gotta Be Right” and “Circle I” (a delightful ode to vegetables) convert the essential ingredients of ’50s R&B into airy but exciting dance- rock as only the Modern Lovers can.
As the title intimates, Jonathan Richman continues its predecessor’s minimalist direction, presenting the artist accompanied only by his guitar and percussive footstomps (though an unobtrusive rhythm section pops up on two songs). The solo thing doesn’t work as well on record as it does live, and the material’s a bit spotty (three out of twelve tracks are instrumental covers of pop standards, one is sung in French and another in Spanish), but Jonathan Richman is not without its charms. Check out “Closer,” “Fender Stratocaster” and “I Eat with Gusto, Damn! You Bet,” a spoken-word verse defending Jojo’s sloppy table manners.
In contrast, Jonathan Goes Country finds the singer backed by a full band of seasoned studio pros, led by producers Lou Whitney and D. Clinton Thompson (of Morells/Skeletons fame), with ingratiating results. The program is a mixture of well-chosen covers, reworkings of previously recorded Richman tunes and a few swell new originals. Rather than sounding like a gimmicky affectation, the album’s faux-Nashville arrangements prove to be a perfect vehicle for Jonathan’s bucolic sincerity.
Except the fact that some of its numbers were recorded at gigs, the Having a Party title doesn’t literally signify anything beyond the ebullient one-man-happening spirit of the author. In a pensive frame of mind for much of the record, Richman reconsiders past times with new- found gravity. He pores over a non-relationship (“Just for Fun”), expresses remorse for “My Career as a Homewrecker,” makes fun of the Modern Lovers in “Monologue About Bermuda” (a musically illustrated anecdote about his discovery of calypso) and explaining his rejection of city life in a poem called “1963.” Displaying his genius for offbeat observations about obvious things, he enthuses about a positive interpersonal adjustment (“The Girl Stands Up to Me Now”), worries about nomenclatural associations in “When I Say Wife” (“wife sounds like your mortgage/wife sounds like laundry”), describes “Our Swinging Pad” and speeds up “Cappucino Bar” as the lyrics’ sugar/caffeine buzz kicks in. With the barest bits of incidental accompaniment, Richman rolls another easy spare.
Ably assisted on low-tech instruments by various pals and offspring and recording in a California basement, Richman hits peak form on the casually wonderful and all- original I, Jonathan. With infectious enthusiasm, sloppy charm and the topical eclecticism of his best mid- ’80s work, Jojo rejoices about such diverse subjects as the superiority of gay nightlife (“I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar”), little fishies (the electric surf instrumental “Grunion Run”), skydiving (“Tandem Jump,” complete with sound effects), the changing nature of house parties (“Parties in the U.S.A.”) and one rock’n’roll group he admires (“Velvet Underground”). As a bonus, I, Jonathan reprises 1983’s wistful reminiscence “That Summer Feeling” (from Jonathan Sings!, itself given a second chance the following year, with the addition of the previously UK-only “The Tag Game” as a bonus track) in a sweetly floating acoustic rendition that gains resonance from the passage of another decade in Richman’s life.
Jonathan had already test-driven his multi-lingual skills on record; still, the singer’s all-Spanish album is a happy conceptual surprise. ¡Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar! includes loosely translated renditions of songs from previous J.R. albums — I, Jonathan‘s “A Higher Power” (“Una Fuerza All”) and “You Can’t Talk to the Dude” (“No Te Oye”), Party‘s “Just for Fun” (“No Mas por Fun”) “The Neighbors” (“Los Vecinos”) and “Reno” (“Reno”) from Country, plus a reprise of Jonathan Richman’s Spanish trial balloon “Cerca” — as well as a couple of Mexican numbers and new originals. Emoting with gently robust romanticism over nylon-string guitar and piano, Richman is no less charming in a foreign tongue, even when he gets up to his old tricks like waxing handsomely sentimental about the Marx Brothers (“Harpo en Su Harpa”), focusing deeply on a gum wrapper (“Papel de Chicle”) or recounting a Persian lovers’ fable (“Shirin y Farad,” first told on his ’86 LP). Putting extra care into his singing, Richman wraps his instinctual nonchalance in credible conviction, even if—as he notes in the voluminous booklet of liner notes and lyrics —”Don’t blame…the people who helped me for the way I ‘stretch’ the language at times. I do the same in English.”
Richman brings an equal measure of ambition to his customary métier in You Must Ask the Heart, a deep and wide exclamation of love’s power that revisits many of his musical fascinations with lightly balanced but fully formed band arrangements. Evidently incapable of organizing himself into stylistically consistent albums, Richman lays out the usual smorgasbord here, blithely following the serious personal revelations of “To Hide a Little Thought” and a handsomely rocking cover of Tom Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night” with the abject silliness of “Vampire Girl” and the merry ethnic grumble (sung by actress Julia Sweeney) of “Just Because I’m Irish.” Besides the usual rustically rendered pop, there’s some country (the original title song and Amanda McBroom’s “The Rose”) and a relevant Spanish ballad (“Amorcito Corazòn”). Elsewhere on this magnificent album, he sympathetically defends a young woman in trouble (“Let Her Go Into the Darkness”), offers an a cappella tribute to pitcher “Walter Johnson,” a version of Sam Cooke’s “Nothing Can Change This Love” and a personal paradox (“City Vs. Country”). Employing innocence like an instrument, Richman turns the joyfully spirited You Must Ask the Heart into an amazing feat. Although he’s been making music his own way for a quarter of a century, Richman still sounds like he’s playing with a brand-new toy.
Richman’s debut for Neil Young’s Vapor Records, the Andy Paley-produced Surrender to Jonathan, involved a full band for the first time in ages and it sounds awfully good. A horn-fueled remake of “Egyptian Reggae” gets downright funky, and “I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar” also works well in this setting. As usual, the eleven new songs offer Richman’s unique takes on everything from spousal identity issues (“Not Just a ‘Plus One’ on the Guest List Anymore”) to fatherhood (“My Little Girl’s Got a Full Time Daddy Now”). “Rock ‘n’ Roll Drummer Straight From the Hospy-Tel” marks a return to the good-natured silliness of his later Berserkley albums, and the title track, “Surrender,” is one of the most touching songs Richman has ever written. As the album closes with a dream of floating on the ocean, surrender is the only option.
The mainstream suddenly appeared to be ready to surrender to Jonathan in the mid-’90s, thanks to the filmmaking Farrelly brothers. Richman made a cameo appearance in their bowling comedy Kingpin, and had an integral (if inexplicable) role in their 1998 hit, There’s Something About Mary. As the film’s singing narrator, Richman performs songs commenting on the action, and his fate provides its final punchline. The soundtrack album contains several Richman originals (most notably the sweet, charming title track) as well as selections by Propellerheads, the Dandy Warhols, the Foundations and others. Surprisingly, given the movie’s success, the album bombed. The closest Richman has come to universality since was the use of “Ice Cream Man” in a commercial for Kohl’s department stores.
Given the historic connection between the Cars and the Modern Lovers, there’s a nice logic to Ric Ocasek producing I’m So Confused. His most audible influence is the abundant but low-key Cars-ish keyboard flourishes and the presence of Bad Brains bassist Daryl Jenifer’s in the backing band. Mostly, Ocasek allows Richman to do what he does best, giving him a slightly more commercial sound without swamping his unique persona. Keeping with his pattern of revisiting a couple of old songs on each new album, Confused features remakes of “When I Dance” and “Affection.” Otherwise, it’s more wonderful Jonathan originality, albeit somewhat more downbeat than usual. At this point in his career, Richman seems incapable of writing songs that don’t inspire either laughter or a lump in the throat. More often than not, he achieves both.
Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow is largely devoted to musings on love, although it also addresses such everyday issues as strolling a city in spring and women who don’t like makeup. “Give Paris One More Chance” gets another visit this time, and Richman extensively indulges his fondness for singing in Spanish.
Richman fans greet each new release like a letter from a cherished friend — even when he seems to have little on his mind, it’s always nice to hear from him. Such is the case with the slight Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love. The title track, “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste It” and “The World Is Showing Its Hand” are good if not stellar additions to Richman’s catalog of celebrations of the joys of everyday life — capable of bringing a smile here and there, but not up to his usual standards of inspired wit and observation. “Vincent Van Gogh” receives an update, and “Salvador Dali” joins the list of artists feted in Richman’s music. Elsewhere, he sings in Italian and lifts a lyric from the Sermon on the Mount. All in all, a perfectly likable Richman album, but not one likely to be so much loved. The only completely new wrinkle in the Richman formula, either lyrically or musically, is his willingness to take on a controversial topic with “Abu Jamal,” an ode to death row inmate and journalist Mumia Abu Jamal. Unfortunately, his main achievement here is to confirm his instincts about avoiding overt political commentary. While his sincerity is obvious and his heart is in the right place, the song boils his viewpoint down to “someone this well-spoken with so many celebrity supporters can’t possibly be a criminal,” an argument that doesn’t serve Richman or Abu Jamal particularly well.
Richman uses the soundtrack for the indie film Revolution Summer as the vehicle for his first all-instrumental album. Layering his distinctive guitar riffing atop dark, churning drones, he revisits the ambience of the original Modern Lovers for the first time in decades. Especially strong are the rumbling “Francine’s Theme,” “Music for Next Year’s Jukebox” and “Weeds Breaking Through the Concrete,” possibly the most explicit homage to the Cale-era Velvets that Richman has ever recorded. Mixed in with the heavier material are delicate acoustic tracks (“Hipster Café” and “Hope’s Theme”) more in line with the bulk of Richman’s post-Modern Lovers career. As beloved as Richman’s lyrics are to his fans, Revolution Summer makes one hope he has a few more instrumental albums in him.
Richman live shows have long been legendary in their ability to inspire group hugs in rooms full of strangers. In 2003, he released the concert DVD Take Me to the Plaza. On it, Richman and drummer Tommy Larkin — his only constant musical companion for most of the last decade — perform a well-chosen selection of tunes from his last few albums. He stretches way back to include a couple of Modern Lovers classics: “Girlfriend” and “Pablo Picasso,” a song which he famously refused to perform for years but which has recently made its way back onto his set list. While this can’t compare to the live Jonathan experience, Take Me to the Plaza is a dandy substitute.
A Plea for Tenderness is a British compilation.