Sunday, June 11, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1649: Jonathan Richman

I woke up today to the realization that this is the last day of my June holidays. Tomorrow will come earlier than will be welcome, but ere it does, let’s enjoy another music review.

Disc 1649 is…Self-Titled

Artist: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Year of Release: 1976

What’s up with the Cover?  Looks like Jonathan Richman’s school portrait. At this age Richman has a ‘striking’ resemblance to Airplane! star Robert Hays.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Casey played a Jonathan Richman song at a music listening night. This piqued my interest and here I am with two albums in the collection and on the hunt for a third.

How It Stacks Up: If you are following along carefully, you already know I have two Jonathan Richman albums. I put this record in second place of the two, but it is a photo finish.

Rating: 4 stars

Jonathan Richman’s music is jaunty and full of joy, and it is never more so than on his eponymous 1976 release. At a time when America was awkwardly exiting Vietnam and England was embracing the vitriolic and visceral punk scene, Jonathan Richman is just a boy who wants to make happy music and have fun.

Many records sound better depending on where you do your listening (driving music in the car, dance music at a party, etc.). I listened to this album under perfect circumstances. On Thursday afternoon I was out consignment store shopping with Sheila. Her shopping is a lot more intense than mine and when I’m finished before she is I’m happy to wait outside. I often read, but this time I sat on a bench in the sun watching people walk by listening to Jonathan Richman.

Once you’ve immersed yourself in the playful joy of this record, the first thing you notice is the innovative use of the rhythm section. This, combined with the stripped-down production, makes every song a foot-tapper.

Rockin’ Shopping Center” leads off the record with an infectious bass lick. Other instruments are quickly added, but all serve the beat in one way or another. Even the guitar, which has a Buddy Holly style bounce, has a riff designed to keep the beat alive.

New England” similarly impresses. Loving the Bruins and hating the Patriots as I do makes for a complicated relationship between myself and New England. Not so Jonathan Richman. He loves everything about the place, turning that love into doo wop classic complete with an almost sea-chanty like chorus of the Modern Lovers echoing back “oh-oh, New England” at just the right time.

Richman has a hard time getting serious. The bright and friendly tone in his voice has a “gee whiz!” quality that makes everything feel less threatening. The closest he gets is with “Lonely Financial Zone” which slows the record’s tempo down, as Richman recounts the feeling of walking late at night, presumably thinking deep thoughts. Even here the beat and arrangement of the song gives it a heroic rise that makes you feel like you’re starring in a musical or maybe heading off to a parade.

There are multiple songs that feature Richman switching from silly lyrics to just a bunch of words, like an indie pop version of scatting. As a devoted lover of great lyrics this did not bother me in the least. It never feels like he’s just filling space, with every “diddly diddly” and “oh my” feeling artfully – if absently – placed. Even the “De-doily doidy doit doit doit doit diddle” in “Rockin’ Shopping Center” ends up being exactly what you need to hear at that moment.

Richman can’t resist the absurd. On this record, we have “Abominable Snowman in the Market” which is literally about exactly what the title suggests. The Snowman is noted as hanging out by the peas and carrots, with shoppers complaining and asking he be removed. Richman uses the amusing tale as a general call for tolerance and acceptance, noting that he thinks the Snowman is “a really nice guy.” This song should not work, but it does.

Other tunes don’t work quite as well. “Hey There Little Insect” has Richman trying to befriend a bug and asking it not to bite him. “Here Come the Martian Martians” is less an invasion and more of a whimsical exploration of what Martians would be like if they came for a visit. The beat is as infectious as anything, but unlike “Snowman” I couldn’t get behind the silliness. One step too silly, I suppose.

Overall, this record is a joyful experience. Sitting on that bench, I listened to it twice through and would have been happy for a third. As I listened, I nodded and smiled at passersby who, sensing something wonderful was happening, smiled back without artifice or hesitation.

Best tracks: Rockin’ Shopping Center, New England, Lonely Financial Zone, Hi Dear, Abominable Snowman in the Market

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