Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
Reviewed on this page:
A cult icon who stubbornly defies everyone's expectations with every new career move, Jonathan Richman is one of the most literate and doggedly non-conformist veterans of the 70s independent rock scene. Most fans probably know him from his recent appearance in the hit film There's Something About Mary, and for a quarter-century he's labored in obscurity putting out quirky minor-label records that fall somewhere between bookworm folk and 50s rock 'n' roll nostalgia, adding a good whiff of calypso, absurdist humor, and children's music for variety. But Richman's real claim to fame is as the leader of Boston's Modern Lovers, whose single Velvet Underground-influenced studio album arguably set off the entire New Wave movement in the United States. Richman's solo work is hit and miss, with a string of "Modern Lovers" albums that rarely deserve the title. But his first band's recordings are so extraordinary that anyone who cares about late 70s high-brow rock should track them down.
A regional New England success in the early 70s, the Modern Lovers recorded a few demos and live tapes before heading to California to start work with John Cale on an album for Warners Brothers. Unfortunately, they failed to deliver a finished product before Richman quit the band over musical differences. Despite having led the group into its angsty, uptight urban roots rock sound, by now he'd had a transforming encounter with calypso while gigging with the band in Bermuda, so he'd lost interest in pursuing anything resembling a conventional rock career. Bassist Ernie Brooks joined another Boston band called the Real Kids; drummer David Robinson stuck with Richman for a while before joining the Cars, a much less musically innovative Boston group with a somewhat Modern Lovers-like approach; and keyboard player Jerry Harrison soon surfaced as a founding member of Rhode Island's the Talking Heads, a second, even more important New Wave act. Filled out with the better demo tracks, the album became a critical success once it was finally released in 1975, two years after the original band split up.
As for Richman, his 1977 debut solo album was a moderate commercial success and a definite artistic success, and since then he's put out a steady stream of albums that work with the same general formula. He tours nationally on the small club circuit, normally performing either solo or with a drummer as his only backing. I saw him live in Tucson in about 1995 and thought his act was a bit stale and insincere, but his bizarre sense of humor and determined showmanship are irresistable. He's never fulfilled his promise as a senior stateman of American indie rock, but parts of his catalogue are still worth hearing - often entertaining and always unique.
I don't know of a good Jonathan Richman web site, but I'm open to suggestions.
Thanks to Philip Obard for some fact-checking. (JA)
Lineup (the Modern Lovers):
Ernie Brooks (bass), Jerry Harrison (keyboards), Jonathan Richman (guitar, vocals), David Robinson (drums). John Felice (guitar) was in and out of the group but doesn't appear on their studio album. Group disbanded, 1973, reformed about 1976 with Richman, Robinson, Greg "Curly" Keranen" (bass) and Leroy Radcliffe (guitar). Robinson left to join the Cars by 1978, after which the "group" consisted of Richman and whatever backing musicians he chose.
The Modern Lovers (1975)
The breakthrough American New Wave album, laying out the entire Velvet Underground-influenced CBGB's formula - it ditches any vestige of the VU's psychedelic experimentation in favor of snappy, danceable, and rudimentary roots rock. The only bummers are Richman's occasionally embarassing lyrics (the bizarre ballad "Hospital"), his nasal, ragged vocals, and the amateurish instrumental performances - but that's exactly what makes the record so compelling. In a remarkable twist of fate, VU bassist/avant garde composer John Cale produced about half the album. Admittedly, the stark, live-in-the-studio sound obscures his influence. The tapes (some demos, some finished) were recorded in 1972 and 1973 and released only when Richman got himself a record contract. There's one taut, angsty, hyper-neurotic proto-punk rocker after another, with Richman's effortlessly witty teenage lyrics delivering introspective social commentary (the catchy, propulsive "Dignified And Old") and painful, confused romantic analysis ("Girl Friend"). The band's performance is extraordinarily primitive, and Richman's Lou Reed influence is so strong it verges on outright imitation ("Astral Plane";""Pablo Picasso," complete with random guitar feedback, a deliberate piano part, and brooding outsider lyrics; "She Cracked" and the taut, riffy surf-rockers "Modern World" and "Someone I Care About"). But the album is cluttered with classics like "Dignified And Old," a long string of propulsive rock tunes like "Roadrunner" and "She Cracked," and the mumbling confessional anthem "I'm Straight." "I'm Straight" and the gimmicky rocker "Government Center" date from 1973 and were tacked onto the 1986 rerelease. (JA)
Precise Modern Lovers Order (rec. 1971 - 1973, rel. 1994)
A lengthy live album that compiles basically everything the band originally performed in concert: most of the songs that appeared on their studio album, one remarkably authentic-sounding VU cover ("Foggy Notion"; they also sound exactly like the Underground on "Pablo Picasso"), and some second-rate stuff that isn't exactly a revelation. The first 11 tracks are from a 1973 show in California, and they're okay, with decent sound quality, some rambling, but funny Richman monologues ("Dance With Me"), and high-energy performances of the group's best rockers ("She Cracked"; "Dignified And Old") and most plaintive love songs ("Girlfriend"). Oddly, Richman doesn't sound happy with the group's performance, and things do fall apart on the set closer "A Plea For Tenderness." The half-dozen extra tracks from early shows in Boston aren't so great, with really lousy sound quality on the loud numbers ("I'm Straight"; "Roadrunner") and some gut-spilling boyfriend/girlfriend stuff that's almost embarassing ("The Mixer (Men And Women Together)," another VU ripoff). The song catalogue is remarkable and the disc is a really interesting historical document, but it's basically inessential if you have their first record, and if you don't, Richman's sophomoric personality quirks and the group's amateurish sloppiness might be a major turnoff. Assembled and annotated by Ernie Brooks; John Felice appears on the Boston tracks, but he doesn't add appreciably to the group's sound. There are at least two alternative versions of the record under different titles that feature slightly different track selections. (JA)
Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers (1977)
With the original band's only record finally having been released and having earned some critical attention, Richman went back in to the studio to record some of the material he had written over the previous few years. Instead of making any concession to the then-honestly-new New Wave movement that he had inspired, by now he had settled on the stripped-down, gently humorous blend of 50s rock 'n' roll, calypso, and child-like musical storytelling that became his signature for the rest of his career. And this time, at least, his cleverness and goofy charm are consistently entertaining ("Rockin' Shopping Center"; "New England"). He even manages to dig the sardonic core out of Chuck Berry's "Back In The U.S.A." Some of it is a bit annoying, especially the slow love songs that reveal Richman's deep-seated, basically sexist romanticism ("Important In Your Life"; "Springtime"); and he's already recycling musical formulas on tune after tune. But he also tries hard to vary his tone - his moving "Lonely Financial Zone" is practically a death march - and side 2 runs through a series of unforgettably bizarre gimmick tunes, all with the same rockabilly underpinnings ("Abominable Snowman In The Market"; "Hey There Little Insect"; "Here Come The Martian Martians"). As far as I can tell, this is the key record of Richman's solo career. Co-produced by Matthew King Kaufman and engineer Glen Kolotin. (JA)
Rock N' Roll With The Modern Lovers (1977)
Have this one. A bizarre, mistitled effort, continuing in the low-fi, retro novelty tune mold of the last record but failing miserably. For starters, there's the abysmal sound quality, so bad it's worse than a demo - you'd think it was a hand-helded mike recording of an informal living room jam. Then there's the near-zero band presence, with rudimentary percussion, inaudible bass, and amateurish vocals. Worst of all, Richman's songwriting is rote and stiff here, with just a couple of crafted efforts that might have worked on the last album. Practically the only thing that really flies is the very first tune, a remarkably careful instrumental rendering of a Chinese folk song. (JA)
Back In Your Life (1979)
Jonathan Sings! (1983)
A frustrating studio album that practically drowns a pile of solid, carefully performed tunes with gratuitous 50's nostalgia - two female backing vocalists camp it up on track after track. Includes the original version of his classic "The Neighbors," which he redid on his country album. Produced by Peter Bernstein; most of the band members apart from bassist Greg Keranen appeared only on this one disc.(JA)
Rockin' And Romance (1985)
It's Time For Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers (1986)
Modern Lovers 88 (1988)
I have this one; it's a particularly intense example of Richman's 50's nostalgia, with such a purist attitude that it almost comes across as rock 'n' roll parody. (JA)
Jonathan Richman (1989)
Jonathan Goes Country (1990)
The title says it all: this is a self-mocking, sharply performed country-western record, split between originals and over-the-top country standards ("Rodeo Wind"). Ironically, Richman is in good form here; "Corner Store" successfully works the sentimentality and child-like humor that marked his early solo career. And the country dressing provided by producers Lou Whitney (on bass) and D. Clinton Thompson (on guitar) mostly does little harm. He's also smart enough to indulge in flat-out parody on a couple of the originals ("Reno," with stiff Jordanaires-like backing vocals; the hysterical Johnny Cash sendup "You're Crazy For Taking The Bus"). The band - and particularly pedal steel player Tom Brumley - is tightly practiced and professional (Richman's up-tempo "Since She Started To Ride"). But much of the material is dull (Marty Robbins' sleepy "Man Walks Among Us"), sappy ("You're The One For Me"), clichéd beyond all belief ("I Must Be King"), or just slight (instrumental takes on Billy Sherrill's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad" and the Goffin-King sock hop tune "I Can't Stay Mad At You"; a solo acoustic "Satisfied Mind"). And he only real break from the tedium is an elegant, Mediterranean-style remake of "The Neighbors," featuring a sensibly understated duet vocal by guest Jody Ross. A marginal buy, but surprisingly easy on the ears. The other players include David Byrd and Joe Terry (piano) and Ron Gremp and Bobby Lloyd Hicks (drums). (JA)
Having A Party With Jonathan Richman (1991)
Recorded at several nightclubs in the Midwest, this is a live album, most of it being solo-with-guitar (there's some primitive percussion on several tracks). Richman's studio productions are so stark that you can hardly tell the difference - especially because the crowd noises are mostly edited out. Most of the tunes are short, 50's-flavored singalongs in his classic style ("The Girl Stands Up To Me Now"). But there's one really annoying poetry reading that pounds Richman's obsessive nostalgia into the ground ("1963"), and the record's centerpiece is a rambling, seven-minute "Monologue About Bermuda" that says too much about the Modern Lovers' collapse - ironically, his interpolated sendup of "She's Cracked" refutes his merciless renunciation of the band's Velvet Underground influences. Despite this, the ten regular songs are so witty and hummable that the record makes a good introduction to Richman's mature sound. Produced by Brennan Totten. (JA)
I, Jonathan (1992)
A respectable, minimalistically produced, and completely in-character studio record. The classic "I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar" is one of his funniest and most danceable compositions, probably the best thing he did in the 90s; the swaying, tension-building "You Can't Talk To The Dude" is a particularly well-crafted example of his wit and percussive, mid-tempo rhythm guitar work; and his heartfelt homage "Velvet Underground" shifts between his usual, upbeat roots rock and a snippet of that band's gloomy "I Can't Stand It." Elsewhere he's relentlessly retro, whether he's dishing out super-authentic surf rock instrumentals ("Tandem Jump"; the energetic "Grunion Run," where trades licks with Ned Claflin), recreating the sound of a beachside jam ("Rooming House On Venice Beach"), or bouncing through a starry-eyed, early 60s girl group-like pop song ("A Higher Power"). Some of this stuff is guaranteed to annoy anyone who can't put up with Richman's schtick, especially the repetitive and sluggish "Parties In The U.S.A." (a calypso rewrite of "Hang On Sloopy"). The skeletal "Twilight In Boston" ends the record on a spaced-out note, and the formulaic, six-minute ballad "That Summer Feeling" is just plain dull. But if you want to hear his mature formula in all its bargain basement glory, you can't go wrong with this one. Totten produces again, and a bunch of mostly no-name friends of Jonathan alternate on bass (mostly John Girton or Jim Washburn), guitar, drums, and backing vocals, with Andy Paley slapping a drum kit on "Grunion Run." (JA)
Surrender To Jonathan (1996)
A slightly bigger-budget album that adds a horn section and some production gloss to his usual formulas; I have it and don't think it's all that great, although it's about as good as any of his other late-period discs. Produced by Andy Paley. (JA)
I'm So Confused (1998)
In 1998 Richman contributed four songs to the soundtrack of There's Something About Mary, which suddenly pushed him into the national spotlight. He soon released a rather flashy-looking new album produced by Ric Ocasek. Richman mostly retreats to his demo-like production standards and archaic musical formulas, focusing more than ever on squishy romantic themes ("If She Don't Love Me") even when he's funny and introspective (the mawkish, smiley-faced anthem "Affection"). Several tunes sound like rewrites, including the slow-paced 50s torch song title track and mid-tempo stuff like "The Night Is Still Young." Ocasek and engineer Brian Sperber's only audible contribution is a series of quietly mixed, rudimentary synth parts, frequently in poor taste ("Love Me Like I Love"; the sappy lullabye "I Can't Find My Best Friend"). But they're often so incongruous they do add interest (the entertaining rockabilly travelogue "Nineteen In Naples"; "True Love Is Not Nice," with some scratchy synth percussion). Still, though, long-time fans will enjoy Richman's many workmanlike efforts here, including his mellow calypso number "Hello From Cupid," his super-romantic, down-tempo country ballad "When I Dance," his B-52's-like geek-funk tune "I Can Hear Her Fighting With Herself," and especially his sentimental acoustic roots rocker "Lonely Little Thrift Store," which recalls his great mid-70s gimmick songs (not to mention "Corner Store"). The rhythm section is Darryl Jennifer (bass) and Tommy Larkins (drums), with a couple of bit players. (JA)
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