Minstrel of Sincerity

Jonathan Richman keeps singing his sweet, nasal songs .

By Sam Hurwitt
Published September 16, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

When bands tour these days, it's usually just to support their albums. Heavy rotation on MTV and your CD carousel is the goal, and the applause is incidental. With Jonathan Richman, the opposite is true: his albums are there to tide fans over until he next comes 'round to play. Richman is a traveling minstrel first, and a recording artist seemingly as an afterthought. Frequent his concerts, and you'll see the same faces again and again; I know plenty of people who've never seen Jonathan live, of course, but I don't know anyone who's seen him only once.

Self-dubbed "the celebrity that nobody has ever heard of," Richman has been doing his thing for a quarter century, and has amassed a die-hard if quiet following. His first band's eponymous album, "The Modern Lovers," was recorded in 1972 (largely by John Cale) and released by Beserkly Records in 1976, just three years after that particular lineup parted ways. (Richman was to use the name "the Modern Lovers" for almost every backup band he mustered, and members of the first incarnation went on to join the Talking Heads and the Cars.) Richman's gone from being a gloomy protopunk Velvet Underground devotee -- writing choppy songs like "Roadrunner," covered by the Sex Pistols way back when -- to playing quirky, largely acoustic tunes fed by calypso, country, and '50s R&B. His songs celebrate the simple and the weird, from old jeans and corner stores to Van Gogh, Picasso, and Martian Martians.

Just as with lunatic-fringe singer-songwriters from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen down to Tom Waits and Robyn Hitchcock, Richman's voice can be an acquired taste. He croons in a nasal drawl, a bit slurred, often half-speaking the lines. There's something sad and wistful about Jonathan's lyrics -- not the "she done me wrong" pathos of honky-tonk jukeboxes, but a sense of alienation and missed opportunities. At first, his songs sound corny, a bit too sentimental. And despite the rockabilly redux and hip-to-be-square lounge revival, if someone plays a Chuck Berry riff with a straight face these days, it's usually at a wedding or bar mitzvah. But it's hard to resist Richman's quick wit and tight musicianship, his shy impishness and calculated childishness. The guy knows what he's doing.

"Surrender to Jonathan," Richman's latest album (maybe his twentieth, depending on whom you ask), is also his Vapor Records debut, after nearly a decade on Rounder. After a number of years as a solo artist, on this album Richman plays his guitar accompanied by a full band, including Hammond organ, back-up singers, and brass.

"Surrender" reprises a few favorites, including 1977's bouncy instrumental "Egyptian Reggae," Richman's biggest chart hit to date, and "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar" from 1992's "I, Jonathan." I'd already heard most of the "11 new songs" touted by the label, especially since several of them aren't new at all. "When She Kisses Me" comes from "Having a Party With Jonathan Richman," for example, and "To Hide a Little Thought" was on last year's album, "You Must Ask the Heart." Compared to the previously recorded acoustic solo version, "When She Kisses Me" sounds a little overproduced, as if Richman has to shout to be heard while the band rocks out. On the other hand, the wail of the Hammond spices up the funky disco number "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar," and the schmaltzy lounge lament "To Hide a Little Thought" sounds more polished (and funnier) this time around.

In the liner notes to 1991's "Having a Party...," Richman wrote, "Once in a while a record comes along that is such a departure from the normal style of a singer that some explanation is in order. This record is not one of those. As far as I can tell, the style of singing, the melodies, and the lyrics are a lot like what I've been doing for the last ten years." Richman may have solidified his groove long ago, but his songs sound as witty and fresh as ever, and his guitar playing is if anything getting ever more deft. The new gems uncovered include the swingin' Gallic zydeco-cabaret number "French Style" and an upbeat, calypso-tinged fare-thee-well to a woman coming into her own, "Not Just a 'Plus One' on the Guest List Anymore." The tender, reflective ode to parenthood "My Little Girl's Got a Full Time Daddy Now" is overshadowed only by "Rock 'n' Roll Drummer Straight from the Hospy-Tel," a hilarious '50s-type boogie celebrating an all-too-familiar shambling rock archetype. "He's such a little rock 'n' roll drummer/Skinny, frail/Keep him away from your niece and your daughter, too."

The title track, "Surrender," has grown on me. When I first heard it in concert a year or so ago, I thought it a mite sappy, but his goofiness and air of amused sincerity has finally won me over, making me heed the Gospel of Jojo: "Love has softened my heart and softened me / It's softened my eyes on the things they see / And my cheek has got much softer to the touch / Since I learned to be receiver as well as sender / To win in love you must surrender." Soon you, too, will surrender to Jonathan. Resistance is futile.

Sam Hurwitt

Sam Hurwitt is a regular contributor to Salon.

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