Jonathon Richman

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine


Mark Athitakis
October 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Before the toilet humor kicked in, "There's Something About Mary" opened with a purely romantic image: Jonathan Richman, sittin' in a tree, b-u-s-k-i-n-g. More than 20 years after he defined the collision of schoolboy angst and pure guitar pop, the former Modern Lover has given up the angst for good, making album after album of off-handedly sweet pop, and "I'm So Confused" is the culmination of this lovelorn pop singer's retreat into middle age. Except "Confused" doesn't sound much like a retreat, just an unapologetic embrace of Johnny Mathis and the 101 Strings records Richman namechecks on the song "The Lonely Little Thrift Store."

In the hands of producer Ric Ocasek, "Confused" is continually spare and casual in feel, but it has a drive to it -- credit Tommy Larkins' snappy drumming, which gives the songs a loose, Latin feel. And there's enough of Richman's trademark lyrical neurosis to keep the songs from devolving into kitsch. Steph Dickson's response vocals on the title track sound like a psychiatrist consoling Richman on the couch, and empathy oozes out of the sighing "I Can Hear Her Fighting With Herself." The most telling moment, however, comes out of "Nineteen in Naples," where the carnival keyboards mesh with Richman's memories of teenage ambition and fear: "I was overintellectual, that's for sure," he sings as if he were laughing at himself, happy to have grown out of it.

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Edith Frost
TELESCOPIC | DRAG CITY
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-->BY DOUGLAS WOLK | Singer-guitarist Edith Frost operates within an indie-rock context, but her songs draw mostly on the country torch song tradition. Her first EP and the subsequent "Calling Over Time" were spare, echoing records, with nothing present but what was needed to present Frost's voice and words in a way that wouldn't seem too stark. "Telescopic," though, is a fully (if oddly) produced pop record if you listen to its slow, pacing arrangements -- blasting drums hidden in the background and Amy Domingues' cello ripping through the mix on the opening "Walk on the Fire," layered Liz Phair-ish guitars and eerie instrumental details turning up elsewhere -- and the darkest, most late-night record she's made if you pay attention to its melodies and words.

Like the best country singers, Frost has a warm, instantly recognizable voice, and she's got a melismatic technique that's all hers: softly grasping onto a note, holding it for a moment, then bending it up and back down again, like a steel bar in a strongman's hands. But what she's really picked up from the Hank Williams and Patsy Cline records that inform "Telescopic" is the secret of describing universal experiences in ways that feel personal, using language so simple that it skirts both writerliness and clichi. Take the first verse of "Tender Kiss": "Oh it hurts to stare at your picture/and think of how it could have been/but you said something about/how you'll never fall in love again." This is only schmaltzy if you're not paying attention. It's also absolutely true, and beneath the half-familiar phrases is a very modern perplex: the romance that fails in a way that frustrates the idea of blame. Even more wrenching is "The Very Earth," a challenge to "let you prove your heart is colder than mine" -- the heart she's presenting isn't cold at all, but she sings like she wishes she could chill it. What she's writing about is the deepest of everyday darknesses: to be lonely even in love, and to see how that loneliness might not have an end.

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Sweet Honey in the Rock
... TWENTY FIVE ... | RYKODISC
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BY GAVIN McNETT | That their music, as nuanced and carefully wrought as it is, should be alloyed by such an imperfectly challenging, feely-centric view of politics and human nature has been a bit of a sticking point for as long as I've enjoyed Sweet Honey in the Rock. But there's nothing to do but love them anyway. Among a cappella groups, only culture-straddlers like Zap Mama and genuine African ensembles come close to the tonal richness and dynamism that Sweet Honey have to offer.

As for their politics, no performer in the world is so classically PC. Bruce Cockburn fails the cut through his didacticism and insight; the new school of dyke acts, such as Tribe 8, are far too sanguine and plain-speaking -- and traditional "women's music" artists, reputedly the ne plus ultra of music that you're supposed to revere more than enjoy, have a much stronger sense of whimsy (I once saw Holly Near crack a smutty joke -- with my own eyes). Sweet Honey, in having none of those sorts of things, demands a certain generosity, not in judgment -- for they're clearly committed -- but of faculty. To appreciate their music fully, you have to feel with them, on their terms.

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That's because unanimity, besides underpinning their politics, is the key to the magic of their sound. Vocal music this richly woven, this soulful and tactile, requires the individual performers to fill spaces that open and close in the arrangements without calling notice to themselves -- as in "Hope." It requires, as in the glorious "Chant," a certain unity of purpose that allows the ensemble to sound as a group while each performer follows a different, individual strand of melody, rhythm and dynamics. Most of all, it requires a kind of broad, deep expressiveness ("Redemption Song") that raw technique and tonality -- both of which Sweet Honey have in spades -- can point toward, but can never find unaided by soul and conviction. If, after the CD winds to its end, the only moral lessons that remain are that women are powerful, slavery was wrong and greed is bad -- well, better a sliver of gold than a mountain of dross, you have to concede. As for the CD itself, it's a mountain of gold.

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Cheap Trick
CHEAP TRICK; IN COLOR; HEAVEN TONIGHT | EPIC/LEGACY
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BY SETH MNOOKIN | In retrospect, Cheap Trick's first three albums (the first two of which were released in 1977, the last in 1978) seem almost startlingly ahead of their time. Marked by infectious power-pop songs about suicide, pedophelia and mass stupidity, Cheap Trick's gleeful and triumphant snideness is a natural fit with the current indie-rock predilection for studied, joyful cynicism.

So it's no surprise that today, 20 years after the fact, Cheap Trick is cooler than ever -- and not in a sly, ironic, Kiss kind of way, either. The renaissance began earlier in the decade, when Kurt Cobain heralded Nirvana as the Cheap Trick of the '90s; careful listeners have caught coded references to the boys from Illinois ever since. (Case in point: The first lines on the Beastie Boys' "Check Your Head" are sampled from the intro to "Live at Budokan's" famed version of "Surrender.")

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Epic has just re-issued "Cheap Trick," "In Color" and "Heaven Tonight," all beefed up with a handful of outtakes and previously unreleased tracks. For those in the know, the fact that these discs sound so fresh and original will come as no surprise. Fortunately for Epic, the uninitiated whom the label no doubt hopes to snare with Cheap Trick's newfound indie cred (the band recorded for Sub Pop a few years back and has recently opened a handful of shows for the Smashing Pumpkins) should have no problem bopping along either. After all, tracks like "Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School" from "Cheap Trick" are as naughty now as they were then. ("I'm 34 but I feel like 16/I might even know your daddy/I'm dirty but my body is clean/I might even be your daddy.")

As clever as Cheap Trick are vocally, it is their songmanship, led by Rick Nielsen's crunching guitar and unerring ear for melody, that anchors the band. From the Gary Glitter-esque prelude to "ELO Kiddies" on "Cheap Trick" to the Spy vs. Spy, mock-noirish opening to "On Top of the World" on "Heaven Tonight," all three discs showcase the quartet's tight, churning melodies. Indeed, at first blush, these discs have the feel of modern-day classics.

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Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo
STRANGE BUT TRUE | MATADOR
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BY MARK ATHITAKIS | It probably sounded like a good idea at the time: Jad and David Fair, a primitivist duo known as Half Japanese who had trouble turning their anxieties into actual songs, meet Yo La Tengo, whose beautiful, fuzzed-out tunes usually obscured the actual words. And on the face of it, the slab of indie-rock logrolling they've wound up with, "Strange But True," is fun before you even put the CD on. The song titles alone are a kick, reading like headlines from a newspaper in a town much more interesting than the one you live in: "Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese," "Minnesota Man Claims Monkey Bowled Perfect Game."

Problem is, David Fair's actual lyrics don't do much to elaborate on their news-of-the-weird ambitions, and brother Jad's nasally schoolboy vocals give them none of the humor they deserve. Yo La Tengo, for their part, simply donated some of their throwaway backing tracks, some of which were used to better effect on the band's 1995 album "Electr-o-pura." The musical themes they obsess over on their own records -- the marvelously harnessed feedback buzz, the strummy acoustic pop -- comes out flattened and unaffecting throughout. Yo La Tengo and the Fairs haven't so much collaborated as they've stapled their ideas on top of one another. File it under nearly every other idea that sounded like a good idea for a while: communism, investing Social Security in the stock market, supergroups.


Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Mark Athitakis

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