If you expect rock music to be a vehicle for the expression of anger, alienation or rebellion, Jonathan Richman will probably sound like the biggest wimp or nerd ever to wear the title "rocker." Ironically, 15 years ago Richman, with the first version of his Modern Lovers band, helped pioneer America's agitational new wave movement with a repertoire of churning proto-punk songs like their classic "Roadrunner."
For the past 10 years, though, Richman has been intent on fostering the childlike in himself, his devoted audience and his music. He has sung love songs to leprechauns, ice cream men, dinosaurs and insects. His latest album, "Rockin' and Romance" (Twin Tone TTR8558), finds him hopelessly enamored of his blue jeans, outer space, Walter Johnson, Vincent van Gogh, chewing-gum wrappers and his wife.
The record kicks off with a summertime paean, "The Beach," in which Richman giddily croons: "The beach may be one of the best things we got/ Where it's not what you have on but what you have not." Like all of "Rockin' and Romance," the clumsy meter and silly rhymes of "The Beach" purposely evoke childhood in a most heartwarming musical fashion.
While Richman's incessant lyrical whimsy may seem flaky or just plain regressive, it's just one element of his imaginative and idiosyncratic musical vision. When he sings "My heart goes bumpety-bumpety bump" in "Chewing Gum Wrapper," Richman knows he's being silly but he's also quite consciously trying to affirm that emotion. Like any good humanist, Richman believes adults should hang on to as much of the wide-eyed wonder and spontaneity of childhood as they can, and his music is out to prove the point.
There is no song here as memorable as 1983's "That Summer Feeling," but all 13 originals are disarmingly melodic invitations to sing along. All are based on classic, three-chord rock 'n' roll riffs and are played with primitive spunk. Richman uses only guitar, drums and toy piano, and his low-key minimalism is designed to keep his sentiments out front and easily engaged.
Much of the album's charm derives from Richman's guileless crooning and the clever conversational exchanges and nonsense singing he enjoys with his backup vocalists. In fact, one of the album's finest songs, "The Baltimores," is a fetching tribute to a doo-wop group that doesn't "play guitar, they just sing."
As always, Richman's goal is to affirm rock 'n' roll as a simple, near-magical art form that requires no special talent but honesty, humor and openness. Much of "Rockin' and Romance" reminds one of a bunch of kids making up rock 'n' roll songs in the basement while Mom brings down the Cokes and cookies. It may all sound silly, but Richman can pry open dormant hearts and make them go "bumpety-bumpety bump" and that is his special talent.
Another new wave progenitor, Alec Chilton, has released his first studio record since 1978's "Like Flies on Sherbet." Chilton's new sex-song, mini-LP "Feudalist Tarts" (Big Time BTA005), bears little resemblance to the innovative pop he fashioned in the early '70s with his group Big Star. Instead, "Feudalist Tarts" returns Chilton to the Memphis soul style of his first group, the Box Tops, while adding horn flourishes familiar to Chilton's new home, New Orleans.
Of the three originals and three covers here, five feature the funky back beat, scratch guitar and pumping horns of classic soul music. While Chilton's Slim Harpo tribute and cover of Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y" are straightforward to the point of being ordinary, the playing is so solid and Chilton's singing so honest that the grooves gain momentum on repeated listening. It's to Chilton's credit that he sings like his slightly pained self rather than indulging in the soul man cliche's that plague so many R&B revivalists.
It's two Chilton originals that really distinguish this record, though. "Lost My Job" is a tough blues, with Chilton's nasty slide guitar work reinforcing his tongue-in-cheek complaint. "Paradise" is simply a touching country song sung straight and pretty.